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The Golden 


Soho Square London 

I0 54 




















XX NOTO 223 


















The Legend 

OF ALL the men who have ever lived those most powerful to 
excite the imagination are the figures looming out of the twi- 
light world where history and legend meet Precisely be- 
cause it is uncertain whether they ever really lived at all, they 
exert the attraction of a mirage or a half-forgotten song. In 
the earliest historical documents these figures are mentioned 
as having existed centuries before, in a golden age that was 
also dark, and their name^s even for these first recorders 
already had a legendary ring. They are spoken of now as 
gods, now as men: they weave an ambiguous path between 
heaven and earth, myth and fact. They merge with the ever- 
lasting archetypes at the depths of the human mind, these 
early kings and heroes, so as to be almost indistinguishable 
from them. But were they, in the last analysis, projections or 
not, real or unreal, the impatient inquirer asks, and the dis- 
appointing answer is that the question cannot be put so 
bluntly. They must be tracked by a more subtle trail, these 
wraiths that are perhaps real. 

Daedalus was such, a figure, perhaps, the most interesting 
of them all, for he is said to have been the first artist who 
ever lived, if not in the flesh at least in the minds of men. 
As Orpheus first invented music and poetry, so Daedalus first 
carved statues and constructed buildings that were beautiful 
as well as habitable. He was the original, primeval crafts- 
man, the first who redeemed man from bare existence. If 
inventors are memorable and the arts worthy of esteem, then 
this discoverer named Daedalus, whose works, Plato says, 
were tinged with divinity, deserves praise in the highest. 

The historian who tells us most about him is Diodorus, a 



Sicilian who lived shortly before the time of Christ. He 
relates that Daedalus, of royal descent, lived in Athens, 
where he gained fame as a builder and sculptor of unparal- 
leled genius. He was the first to represent the open eye and 
to fashion the legs separated in a stride and the arms and* 
hands as extended. The tradition grew up that his statues 
were so lifelike that they had to be chained to prevent them 
from running away. Daedalus employed his nephew as 
apprentice, and when the boy proved himself adept at in- 
venting technical devices, Daedalus out of envy killed him. 
Hastily leaving Athens in order to avoid punishment, he 
went first to Crete, where his works included a labyrinth in 
which to house the Minotaur., Soon, however, the artist 
incurred the jealousy of Minos, King of Crete, and was 
obliged to leave with his son Icarus, who was drowned on 
the journey. Landing in Sicily, he was favourably received 
on account of his artistic fame by Cocalus, king of the island, 
and his daughters. He constructed several wonderful works 
for the king, and enjoyed royal patronage. Not long after- 
wards, however, Minos, who was at that time master of the 
seas, decided to make a campaign in order to capture and 
punish Daedalus. Landing in Sicily, Minos was killed by 
Cocalus and his body handed over to the Cretan soldiers, 
who buried it on the island. Diodorus says that Daedalus 
remained a considerable time jn Sicily, where he accom- 
plished many masterpieces still visible in the historian's day, 
and he mentions in particular that the artist is said to have 
fashioned a golden honeycomb, working it with such skill 
that it was indistinguishable from a real honeycomb. This 
work of art he gave in offering to Aphrodite of Erice, whose 
shrine was- the most famous in all Sicily. 

Diodorus is not a particularly trustworthy writer, but the 
story of the honeycomb fits appropriately into the wider 
context of Daedalus's own life, for which we have other con- 
firmatory evidence. Herodotus, for instance, who lived four 
centuries before Diodorus, relates a tradition which brings 
Minos from Crete to Sicily in search of Daedalus the crafts- 

man, and the theme was well enough known to be developed 
by Ovid. Another reason for trusting Diodorus's story of 
Daedalus is this. In his account the historian gives a detailed 
description of the tomb in which Minos was buried. It was 
in two parts, the upper storey consisting of a shrine to Aphro- 
dite, the lower of a grave. This unusual tomb was destroyed 
in the fifth century before Christ, so that Diodorus himself 
could not have seen it. Nevertheless, his description of the 
type of tomb used for the burial of a Cretan king is strikingly 
confirmed by an actual royal tomb of the Minoan age in 
Crete, excavated by Sir Arthur Evans. The tomb in Crete 
takes just such a dual form as that described by Diodorus. If 
the historian was correct to the last detail in his account of a 
grave demolished four centuries before his birth, it is likely 
that he was also correct in regard to other, less obscure details 
ojf the same story. Furthermore, that Diodorus, in this par- 
ticular section of his history, believes he i.s recording his- 
torical fact is shown by his comments on an alternative ver- 
sion of Daedalus's journey from Crete/ Some people, he 
points out, say that Daedalus made his escape on wings of 
wax, but this, Diodorus declares, is a mere myth. The im- 
plication is that the rest of his account is historically true. 

Daedalus, if he is a historical figure, lived before the 
Trojan War, about the fourteenth century before Christ, 
during an age of Mediterranean history concerning which 
very little is known. At that time Crete was a dominant 
power, having built up, under Egyptian influence, a civilisa- 
tion of great complexity. Cretan ships, as Diodorus men- 
tions, ranged far and wide over the Mediterranean. Athens, 
on the other hand, if the place existed at all, was at that time 
only a minor town, uncivilised and unlikely to have origi- 
nated an artistic tradition. It is probable, therefore, that 
Daedalus's Athenian origin was a later accretion to the basic 
legend, and that Crete, in fact, was his native country. After 
the rise of Athens it became customary to trace the birth of 
most heroes and: many of the gods to Attica, and in this par- 
ticular story the murder of a relative is clearly a mere device 


for bringing the hero to Crete, the scene of most of his 
known activities and therefore, probably, his birthplace. 

Apart from this single alteration, there are no certain 
reasons why Diodorus's account should not be accepted in its 
entirety, for it fits in well with the pattern of history in the 
latter half of the second millennium. In an age of kings, 
artists enjoyed court patronage. They turned their talents 
to the production of jewellery and fibulas for the ladies, 
strongholds and shrines for the king. At this time poetry 
was first beginning to be sung in the Mediterranean, and the 
artist worked side by side with the first singers of epic. Con- 
firmation of the Cretan period of Daedalus's life is found in 
the depiction of a labyrinth on Cretan coins and the con- 
spicuous part which the bull played in Cretan religion. 

No part of the story fits in better with the known historical 
facts than Daedalus's tribute to the goddess of Erice. 
Diodorus, for the benefit of readers who knew only the 
Greek and Roman pantheon, calls her Aphrodite but at such 
an early date she must have been Astarte, or a local equiva- 
lent of that goddess, whose worship took place in Crete as 
elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean. Her shrine at 
Erice is known to be very ancient, and at such an early 
period the artist's religious obligations would have demanded 
an offering from one who had found safety and hospitality 
in a strange country. 

That Daedalus should have offered to the goddess a golden 
honeycomb is, however, curious and unparalleled. In the 
days before wine was invented it is true that honey was 
offered to the gods, but it was always real honey, the sym- 
bolic product of earth and sky, not a representation. Gold, 
an easy metal to work, would have been a natural material 
in which to construct a votive offering, but such presents 
usually took the form of figurines and statuettes. Thus, gold, 
ivory, and wooden statues with a religious function and 
belonging to the Minoan age have been found in Crete. But 
the combination of the two ideas as in a golden honeycomb 
is exceptional. Once again the nearest known equivalent, 


ritual jars in the shape of a wild honeycomb, entwined by a 
snake, have been found at Cnossus. If the idea was brought 
from Crete to Sicily, who better than Daedalus could have 
carried it? 

Yet it has been customary to deny the existence of a his- 
torical Daedalus, Most historians have been inclined to be- 
lieve that the legend sprang up at a late period to account, 
in simple fashion, for primitive works of art, whether in 
Attica, Crete, or Sicily. An artistic Odysseus, travelling and 
working in many different countries, was invented to ac- 
count for early works which during the course of centuries 
had come to receive the epithet Daedalean, another word 
for primitive. It would be absurd, argue the historians, to 
take Diodorus's word for the existence of a man who lived 
1300 years earlier; even more absurd to take his word for the 
existence of a particular golden honeycomb. 

Is Daedalus a man or a myth? There seems no better 
way of discovering whether or not there has been such a 
historical figure than by attempting to find one of his master- 
pieces. Of these none is so distinctive as the golden honey- 
comb. If such a unique work can be found and dated to the 
second millennium before Christ, Diodorus's story will be 
substantiated to the point of truth. 

Yet the one certain way of arriving at the truth also appears 
to be the most difficult If such a honeycomb existed in 
Diodorus' day, it has never been mentioned, and therefore 
perhaps never seen, during the Christian era. So distinctive 
and fine a work can hardly have been mislaid or ignored. 
On the other hand, it can scarcely have been destroyed. 
Beauty has a strong and stubborn tendency to survive, and, 
as though perfect style itself acts as a preservative, the most 
beautiful things often last longest. In recent times modelled 
skulls four thousand years older than the honeycomb have 
been discovered, and the paintings in neolithic caves are as 
vivid now as though they had been executed yesterday. 

Without engaging in archaeology, without excavating 
anew, is a Quest for the honeycomb still possible? And if 


so, will it prove anything but a wild-goose chase? Sicily has 
already been dug; its coins and pottery, temples and shrines 
unearthed and classified. The need now is not for more dig- 
ging but for a roving eye and a definite object in view. A 
new searcher, like Jason with a particular treasure to find 
and secure, will have all the advantages imparted by single- 
minded ambition and an ideal. 

Whether or not the golden honeycomb fashioned by 
Daedalus is finally discovered, the quest will prove rewarding 
in itself. It will involve the exploration of a complex coun- 
try, ancient in descent, a treasure-house of artistic and natural 
beauty; the sifting of many civilisations and the deciphering of 
many symbols; and like most journeys its course will doubt- 
less prove as satisfying as arrival at the final destination. Sicily 
will be a prize no less precious than the golden honeycomb. 

The starting-point of the search will be Erice, as it is 
today, more than three thousand years after the time of 
Daedalus. Yet it will be foolish to expect, even there, any 
obvious clues to the secret. The people will assume blank 
expressions and deny all knowledge of the masterpiece this 
is the procedure in all treasure-hunts. Even the buildings 
will assume a misleading appearance. For this reason every- 
thing will require a scrutiny which looks beyond the a\pdent 
and attempts to elicit secrets. A work of art lost to vteff3fer. 
so many centuries will not yield itself to the first questing 
lover. The object belonged to a goddess and if the goddess 
is dead her property is none the less sacrosanct. It will have 
been hedged about not with dragons, for those would at 
once have revealed its position, but with all the odds and 
ends of everyday life, just as a nightingale's nest and eggs are 
so blended with the surrounding twigs and grasses that they 
altogether escape notice; 

But the treasure is of a sort to justify an arduous search: 
holy, and of gold, and fashioned by a man who, in the judg- 
ment of the people most sensitive to artistic beauty, was the 
first and greatest of all artists. An object of such splendour 
will cast excitement on every stage of the quest. 



To THE south and centre of Western Sicily mountains are 
;ultivated to their summit and interspersed with vines: there 
s a profusion of oaks, poplars and acacias which in Greek 
imes covered most of the island: numerous springs and 
;treams that water a garden of wild flowers, geraniums, 
Dougainvillea, mallows, mustard, fields of red clover like 
Persian carpets, thyme and asphodel, perhaps more abundant 
here than anywhere else in the island. Mile after mile 
stretches a dense El Dorado where armful upon armful of 
Sowers can be picked without encroaching upon the treasure. 

By contrast, further north in this western province, the 
island is flatter, marguerites are the only flowers, trees have 
dwindled and the lizard-littered ground, dry as desert, is 
iotted with stocky vines that yield the syrupy Marsala. Amid 
these surroundings, crowning a high, isolated hill-top on the 
:oast and conspicuous by land and sea for miles around, 
stands Erice, sanctuary of the goddess of love. 

A dusty road winds zigzag up the pyramidal hill, as 
:hough recording on its slope the change of temperature 
from the parched plain below to the cloud-capped crest, 
refreshed by every sea breeze. Part of the mountain lies 
exposed in gashes and caves, some of which have yielded 
rusks of elephants, proof that Sicily was conceived in the 
tvomb of Africa. The earliest people who inhabited these 
slopes gained their livelihood by fishing: indeed, the sea 
Dnce covered all this region and its receding level is marked 
by thin layers of rock, in which fossilised sea-shells are inter- 
naingled with neolithic bones. The sea is still retreating, and 
the long, artificial antenna which is the neighbouring port of 


Trapani will one day project no longer into the Mediter- 
ranean but into fields of waving corn. Farming will super- 
sede tunny fishing and salt-collecting, as Sicily continues to 
make her way slowly back to her mother. 

Like a snake mounting a boulder, the road finally reaches 
and rounds the peak, two thousand feet above sea and land. 
Here is the watchtower of Sicily, almost of the entire Medi- 
terranean, for even Africa is not the farthest visible stretch 
of land. The panoramas at all, points of the compass are 
bewilderingly remote, and the heady air endows them with 
the qualities of a vision. Through the centuries, from its very 
origin which is steeped in myth, this summit has assumed 
religious importance, radiating as far as the eastern and 
western verges of the Mediterranean. It dominates the sea 
and the western tracts of the island, and for mariner and 
rustic alike it has always stood as the point of communication 
between man and the immortal gods. The primitive inhabi- 
tants who took the pains to build on this intractable rock 
did so because they believed they were reinforcing at the 
supernatural level their impregnable natural position. 

The present village is medieval, built of grey stone, a maze 
of silent cloisters among the clouds. As befits a village built 
at such a height, Erice, for much of its history, is encircled by 
mist. For a millennium after its great days as a sanctuary it 
disappears from recorded history, to rise again in the twelfth 
century as Monte San Giuliano, so christened by Count 
Roger, who in a dream had seen that saint putting the 
Saracen to flight with a pack of hounds, while he and his 
Norman army were vainly laying siege to the place. From 
that period dates the present village, a network of alleyways 
and passages clinging to the bare rock, and little grey medi- 
eval houses, distinguished by courtyards. None of them 
gives directly on to the street, so that there drifts about the 
place a note of secrecy, almost of barrenness. It seems another 
Germelshausen, whose period of sleep is a thousand years. 

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the town 
enjoyed prosperity: its numerous churches and castles were 


built in those grand days. Ever since that period Erice has 
been forgotten, a living relic, its large population eroded, as 
it were, to the lowlands and especially to Trapani. This town 
bad formerly been dependent on the great mountain strong- 
bold, but with the coming of the Spanish kings and an era of 
peace it began to assume an important role as the chief port 
linking the island to the mother country. Since then, 
Trapani has steadily increased in importance so that it is 
aow a bustling, thoroughly commercial city of practically no 
aesthetic interest, while Erice lingers on, a village now, no 
longer a great town, curious perhaps but quite useless in 
these practical days. In that fact lies its special form of 
>eauty, for now, deserted almost, it distils the atmosphere of 
mother age. 

About the late Norman churches in the village th^re is an 
lir of abandonment: built for a flourishing centre, many are 
aow falling into ruin, and the village is surrounded on all 
>ides by crumbling houses on which the pine forest has en- 
rroached. The place seems to be retreating into itself in 
protection against a disrespectful century: the outposts have 
ilready been abandoned, and many citizens have deserted. 
Those who live here still are for most of the day out on the 
mountainside with their flocks of sheep and goats, but a few 
villagers pass through the streets having about them an other- 
worldly grace, bowing with a rare spirit of benevolence and 
welcome to strangers, as though their appearance were some- 
Jiing of an event. 

The men wear thick hoods against the violence of the 
wind, and the women black silk shawls. The young girls are 
dim and have well-formed heads, large eyes and fine noses, 
Deautiful now as when the Arab chronicler Ibn Jubair 
described the women of Erice, descendants perhaps of the 
priestesses of Astarte, as the loveliest in the whole island 
md asked God to make them slaves of the Moslem. Neither 
he men nor the women possess the usual Sicilian openness: 
Jbey do not stand about the streets, but walk with purpose 
to and from their little low houses. Even the bread they 

bake here has a flavour which could be imagined medieval; 
it is scented with orange, for their ovens are heated with 
branches of citrus trees, and the nectar-laden sap rises to 
pervade the flour. 

As the bread is interlaced with this evocative perfume, so 
too the village is inseparable from the view it commands on 
every side: to the west lie Trepani and its salt marshes, and, 
far off, the Isole Egadi pretending to be clouds; to the south 
the coast of Sicily, Capo S. Marco, Pantellaria and the verge 
of Africa; to the east the mountains above Sciacca; to the 
north the island of Ustica. Erice is, in its own small compass, 
all these remote points; it concentrates in itself, as a lyric 
poem crystallises many levels of feeling and many varieties 
of experience, the whole of Western Sicily, that primitive 
province, with the yearning for Africa, that Carthaginian 
corner which never quite felt the restraining hand of 

The site of the temple proves to be just as Diodorus 
describes, the highest, precipitous tip of the rock, but it is 
dominated now by the remains of a Saracen castle. Not only 
the town but the very sanctuary of Astarte has been meta- 
morphosed into a medieval village. The deception is com- 
plete: the scene has been shifted for a later act, and there 
remains almost nothing of the original background, only a 
little uncemented masonry bearing ^witness to the sanctuary 
which Daedalus is said to have visited. This pretence of 
medievalism only the imagination has power to unmask, 
and from these tell-tale stones reshape, behind the Norman 
houses and ruined castle, the original, archaic Erice. 

The temple must have been crudely built, imposing only 
on account of its position, and its plain, uncemented walls, 
devoid of columns, were serviceable without interesting the 
eye. Here, in springtime, Daedalus came with the royal 
court, to pay homage to the national deity and perhaps to 
give thanks for his safe escape from the hands of Minos. 
Given the essential conservatism of religion, the rites which 
took place then can have differed little from those barbarian 


observances at Erice known to later writers: they offered a 
striking contrast to the purifying mysteries of Greek religion. 
In spring the chief ceremony took place, when a group of 
doves was released from Erice and took flight in the direction 
of Africa. Nine days later they returned, preceded now by 
a red dove, a bird whose care for its young made it a symbol 
of fertility. The red dove was Astarte, and her return to the 
island signified the return of spring to all living creatures 
in Sicily. The cult cannot have been altogether new to 
Daedalus, for a comparable goddess was worshipped in 
Crete, but the sublime position of Erice perhaps made the 
ceremony more moving than any other he had known. The 
light air and position of the temple must have imparted a 
strong sense of awe: he must have felt himself in a holy 
place, that he was partaking of the divine, as he saw all the 
world, or so it appeared, stretched out at his feet. 

Pilgrims proved their devotion by bringing presents which 
were laid in the sanctuary under guard, and to these 
Daedalus added an offering which combined in unique 
fashion riches with artistic skill. Then, to those pilgrims 
who had brought the fairest gifts, whether they came from 
near or far, the temple priestesses gave themselves in the 
cause of the laughter-loving goddess. In a single rite, at once 
natural and supernatural, which seemed to satisfy primitive 
vague notions about the .sublime rock, the miraculous return 
of spring, and a deep desire to participate in the divine, wor- 
ship was paid to the passionate goddess of Erice. The honey- 
comb remained in the sanctuary, divine property now, while 
its maker returned to the valley. 

The remains which have been excavated from the temple 
are laid out within the walls: columns and a cornice belong- 
ing to a much later reconstruction, for the goddess was taken 
up by the Romans, Virgil going so far as to declare Aeneas 
founder of the temple. Of the original sanctuary, apart from 
the few fragments of masonry, only a round pit called the 
Well of Venus remains distinct: no one knows what purpose 
it served, for it seems both too wide and too shallow to have 


yielded water. Some say it was a fishpond sacred to the god- 
dess, into which pilgrims dropped offerings of money and 
jewellery; others claim that corn was stored there against a 
siege. It remains now as the one certain feature of that 
earliest of all Sicilian cults. But of Daedalus' s original offer- 
ing there is no trace. Scholars, local and national, are cer- 
tain that no such object has ever been discovered at Erice, and 
it is equally certain that the honeycomb could not now re- 
main hidden here, where all is bare rock, refusing burial to 
even the smallest object. 

Erice reveals a beauty past all bounds, a beauty which 
seems to embrace the heights and depths of all creation, of 
heaven and earth and the waters under the earth. The village 
is the prism of the Mediterranean, where the onlooker can 
distinguish all the shades of land, sea, and sky, but it refuses 
to yield up its secret, the one treasure that matters. The loss 
is all the greater since the town in other respects confirms the 
truth of Diodorus's story. Here are the remains of a temple 
which clearly dates back to an age when Daedalus was sup- 
posed to have lived; here stands the sanctuary on the very 
pinnacle of Sicily, open to heaven, but empty of his offering. 
The temple has been excavated to the rock; the antechambers 
combed; the debris sifted, but no one, since Diodorus's day, 
has set eyes on the honeycomb. 

It may well be, simply, that the pbject has never existed. 
But to make such an admission, after so summary a search, 
would hardly be in the spirit of the quest. Moreover, 
Diodorus's statement will have to be explained. If it does not 
correspond to fact, then it must presumably have corre- 
sponded to myth. Someone at some stage must in that case 
have invented a honeycomb and attributed it to Daedalus. 
The difficulties are as formidable in this as in the other 
interpretation, for a golden honeycomb, alien to Greek 
religious rites, is the most unlikely object to have found its 
way into a legend unless there had been some basis for it 
in reality. No, a denial of the treasure's existence is not a 
satisfactory solution to the problem. 

ERICE , 23 

But the fact that the treasure cannot apparently be found 
at Erice does not mean that it is not somewhere to be found. 
Erice had been the great national shrine of the island until 
Roman times: when the cult of Aphrodite was superseded 
by Christianity., the mountain town lost its pre-eminence. It 
became a place of pilgrimage without pilgrims, and even 
its own population drifted down into the valley and across 
the island. No doubt, when the old religions were being 
stamped out, one of the townsmen, perhaps a priest of the 
dying cult, secretly took with him ,the temple treasure not 
abroad, for in the days when the Roman Empire was crum- 
bling piracy forbade a sea voyage, and besides, the honey- 
comb was a national treasure of high antiquity but to an- 
other less obvious part of the island. In Sicily there may yet 
be hidden the treasure sacred to Aphrodite. But where? 
There seem no direct clues to its present hiding place, no 
thread through a labyrinth of time and place which Daedalus 
himself might have constructed. About the honeycomb 
nothing more is known, but about its maker Diodorus pro- 
vides further information. Among the works executed by 
Daedalus the historian mentions' a fortress which he built for 
King Cocalus at Camicus, the strongest of -any in Sicily and 
altogether impregnable. Here Cocalus established his resi- 
dence and stored his treasure. 

A study of this place may well reveal more about Daedalus 
and throw light on the honeycomb of Erice. The difficulty 
is that the site of Camicus is still unidentified. Diodorus says 
that it is in the territory of Acragas, and it is possible that the 
present town of Agrigento, which stands high on a hill, may 
occupy the site of Camicus. Whether or not this is so, a visit 
to the town, which in Greek times was among the richest 
and most flourishing in the whole known world, and with 
which Daedalus' s name is associated, seems to be the most 
likely way of pursuing the search. Its beliefs in early Greek 
times can have developed little since Daedalus's day (for at 
that epoch intellectual advance was still painfully slow), so 
that by exploring primitive forms, by entering into the spirit 


of its religion and art, it may be possible to recapture some 
of the sights and sounds, some of the beliefs and customs 
which Daedalus, if he lived, must doubtless have known, 
To discover his world will be one stage on the road towards 
discovering the man himself. 



THE little town of Agrigento looks across a valley of almond 
blossom to the acropolis of Acragas, the most magnificent 
and beautiful, according to Pindar, of all the Greek cities of 
Sicily. Along the line of a hill the temple columns, of yellow 
sandstone, stand out against the sea, a silent violet-strewn 
plain some three miles away. If the history of mountains 
can be deciphered in their different layers of stones, so too 
can the history of cities. The mined temples and sanctuaries, 
the graves and churches, mark the rise and fall of Acragas 
as articulately as any history book. Her great buildings, and 
especially her great religious buildings, reveal the quality of 
the city's spirit and her degree of refinement as surely now 
as when they were first erected. 

Even before the Greeks founded their colony, the gods were 
worshipped in primitive fashion. Beneath the ruins of the 
city walls at the eastern extremity, the ground falls away in 
a precipice of sheer rock. At the bottom of this, in the cliff 
itself i the early inhabitants of the place, Sicels, built a sanctu- 
ary to their corn-goddess. It is a dark and barbarous chapel, 
dedicated to the worship of earth and water in their imme- 
diate forms, and represents the next stage after Erice in the 
development of Sicilian religion. A long, thin, rectangular 
building serves as a vestibule to the sanctuary, which is com- 
posed of two long passages in the rock, the walls of which 
were originally hung with lamps and vases and busts of the 
deities who came to be known as Demeter and Persephone. 
From the right-hand passage terracotta pipes draw off the 
water into a channel which runs through the vestibule into a 
great system of inter-connecting stone containers, of massive 



construction. In this sanctuary the peasants bowed down and 
abased themselves before the forces of nature, the chthonic 
gods. Here, where the cliff falls sheer and overwhelming, 
they felt themselves subservient; here, where the cave and 
passages lead into the darkness of earth, they cringed in 
terror; here, where earth and water meet, they performed 
rites which would ensure fertility for their crops. 

One of the distinctive features of the sanctuary is the un- 
importance of the buildings the vestibule is of the meanest 
dimensions and huddled close against the rock. It could 
have held no more than three or four people at one time, 
shoulder to shoulder. Perhaps a priest officiated here, puri- 
fying- with water those who were allowed to enter the lugu- 
brious labyrinths in the rock. The imposing square con- 
tainers, since they are too large to have served merely for 
washing, probably held water enthroned for adoration. In 
summer when rain was needed for the crops, nothing seemed 
more fitting to the peasant than to approach a source of 
water and importune it to beshower his parched fields. The 
whole ritual remained at every level a natural one, a worship 
of Nature, yet it was not thereby deprived of all supernatural 
elements, for earth and air, sky and sea were at this stage 
considered divine forces. The cult of the corn-goddess which 
was spreading across the Mediterranean would have provided 
a focal point and a myth for that instinctive earth-worship 
characteristic of uncivilised tribes in this region. The gloomy 
cave, they believed, was the one through which Aidoneus 
had stolen Persephone away to the underworld: to recall the 
spring, Demeter must enter and bring back her daughter to 
light. The lamps to illumine the dark, sterile rock, and 
the little heads of the goddess and her child which were 
left in the sanctuary served as tangible expressions of their 
hope and at the same time as gifts to the presiding deity. The 
passages themselves are so low and narrow, so winding and 
irregular, that they bear more resemblance to huge rabbit 
warrens than to human constructions. It was not that their 
architects and engineers could achieve no better building, for 


the vestibule is methodically constructed from huge blocks 
of stone and the water conduits are artfully contrived, but 
rather that just such primitive passages were required of 
them a warren through which the peasants could return, 
crouched double, to the womb, to the great, dark, mysterious 

So for centuries the primitive rites might have continued, a 
religion directly based on man's two fundamental instincts: 
fear and hunger. In such a society every man was a tiller of 
the soil : his role was the production of food for himself and 
his family. Even in a land as rich as Sicily primitive tools and 
methods made life tenuous, so that leisure, the condition of 
civilisation, was a physical impossibility. Since there was no 
time for wonder, art and poetry, music and song were denied 
to them, and denied, too, were all speculation about the pur- 
pose of existence, any Virgilian foreshadowing of the true 
religion. They might have remained in this static condition 
for centuries, men of almost infinite potentialities compelled 
to drag out the lives of beasts. Then the Greeks came and 
within a generation these people had been raised to a level of 
civilisation which has never been surpassed. 

The colony which settled in Acragas in the sixth century 
before Christ was sent out by the nearby city of Gela, and 
consisted of citizens of the island of Rhodes, descendants of 
those who had founded Gela a century before. Thucydides, 
from whom nearly all certain knowledge about early Sicily 
derives, gives exact dates for the various Greek foundations 
in the island but provides no precise definition of their pur- 
pose. From the middle of the eighth century colonies were 
sent out by the chief cities of Greece and Ionia, perhaps for 
reasons of trade, perhaps as the first stage in a plan of ex- 
pansion, perhaps simply because certain citizens were taken 
by the spirit of adventure. Most likely of all, the colonists 
were drawn by the rich soil of Sicily. Because Greece has a 
poor, rocky surface which gives low yields over a small area, 
this fertility would have made Sicily appear an attractive 
destination. The Greeks, however, were not the first to be 


drawn by the riches of the island. For many centuries after 
the coming of Daedalus (if Daedalus can be proved ever to 
have come) Myceneans and Phoenicians, those merchants of 
the whole Mediterranean, had carried on trade with Sicily, and 
after the foundation of Carthage in the ninth century Phoeni- 
cian settlements were established in the island. But these were 
exclusively trading posts, made up of merchants and business- 
men; their sole purpose was to buy and sell at a profit. In- 
asmuch as they could outwit the Sicels and Sicanians in 
commercial transactions, they were a superior people. But in 
other respects they represented no advance on the indigenous 
races. The Greeks, however, though the occasion of their 
coming was the wealth of the country, came not to trade but 
to settle, not to swindle but to civilise. 

The first Greek foundations had been on the coast, not 
only the most easily defensible position, but the one which 
provided speediest communication with the mother city. 
This filial affection, which was reinforced by and found ex- 
pression in a multitude of myths, continued for centuries and 
was to prove the determining factor in war-time alliances. 
Later, when the initial foundations had gained sufficient 
strength, they sent out in their turn further colonies. Of these, 
Acragas was unusual in having a hill-top site, some distance 
from the sea. Nevertheless, the colonists chose for their new 
foundation a position of great natural strength, on a plateau 
which slopes from a height of over a thousand feet on the 
north side to* three hundred feet on the south, entirely sur- 
rounded by more or less steep cliffs and, beyond, by rivers. 

At the south side stand the Greek temples, five of them 
still existing in whole or in part, most belonging to the fifth 
century. This row of buildings, each one consecrated to a 
different divinity, bears witness to one of the most remark- 
able features of that Greek religion which now took posses- 
sion of Sicily: its multiplicity of gods. The pantheon was 
made up of primitive forces and pagan idols, nymphs and 
maenads, demigods and heroes, assimilated without pattern 
firom countries all over the eastern Mediterranean. Local 


divinities were given Greek names, and the goddess of Ericc 
now became known as Aphrodite. No order harmonised the 
myths pertaining to the various deities, yet this did not seem 
to perplex a people renowned for their methodical minds. 
There was little except their immortality to distinguish them 
from men, and they were certainly lacking in omnipotence, 
yet they were all unreservedly addressed as gods. Part of the 
explanation lies in the fact that the Greek divinities were 
gods of the imagination, created by man. By now he had 
got the better of his surroundings; he was lord of the world, 
capable of indefinite progress; what more natural than that 
he should gradually re-create the primitive forces of nature 
as gods in his own image, indiscriminately and as many as 
he wished. They satisfied the imagination and, partially, the 
growing pride of the people, but they did not altogether 
satisfy that part of the personality which demands a mys- 
terious, an infinite quality in its deity. For this reason, the 
Orphic rites, the Bacchanalian orgies and the cult at Erice 
continued side by side with the nominal religion. The people 
still mingled with the temple priestesses; still plunged them- 
selves with wild abandon into frenzied dances at the prospect 
of a simple ear of corn or bunch of grapes, unveiled in secret 
ritual. Thus the old religion of earth, similar to that of the 
Sicels, lived on. 

In what way, then, had there been an advance? In one 
sense it is impossible to speak of an advance towards a re- 
vealed religion, but on the natural level it cannot be denied 
that the Greek contribution represents an important develop- 
ment. It is not that the gods had been taken out of the wind- 
ing caves and exposed to the sunlight and wind of Mount 
Olympus, though this is symbolic of what occurred. Rather, 
the Greeks made the drastic discovery that beauty is a vital 
element in religion, and that magnificent buildings not only 
praise by their beauty but can also draw the mind to spiritual, 
even divine concerns. More important still, the mind was 
directed, perhaps for the first time, towards fathoming as 
opposed to worshipping the unseen and eternal, If the 


Greeks' purely imaginative endeavour to construct a theology 
ended in failure, the failure nevertheless stimulated their 
philosophers to make a purely discursive attempt. That, too, 
was destined to be an incomplete interpretation, but it carried 
the intellect as far as it could go on the purely natural level. 
Thus the forms were gradually elaborated, the words found, 
the atmosphere adjusted for the crucial, unique intersection 
of time and eternity. The role of the Greek pantheon was 
therefore at this stage negative in so far as theology was con- 
cerned. Indeed it was perhaps during the Renaissance that 
the Greek deities found their most ardent worshippers, who 
saw them for the first time for what they really were : a glori- 
fication not of God but of man himself. This was the untold 
secret of Greek religion: this explained the ease with which 
heroes became demi-gods, this explained the human weak- 
ness of the Olympians, and accounted for the pale and in- 
significant character of the after-life, a life which because it did 
not take place in man's world could arouse little enthusiasm. 

But from the Greeks themselves, and especially from the 
early Greeks, all this lay hidden: in the sixth and fifth cen- 
turies the gods still had numinous and protective functions. 
Zeus was still the thunderer and bearer of lightning; Posei- 
don lord of the seas, and Hera still presided over all the 
phases of a woman's life. Thus the line of temples at 
Acragas, to Zeus and Heracles and a host of other gods and 
goddesses, assured the patronage and protection of the most 
important members of the pantheon. Each reinforced, rather 
than opposed, the others. There were also less spiritual 
motives for such an array of buildings. A city's status could 
be judged by the number and wealth of her temples: they 
were a talisman of her treasure, on the crown of the hill 
visible to all. 

Because the temple was so vital and fundamental a feature 
of the city, it is not surprising that it figures largely in the 
early history of many colonies. The first two tyrants of 
Acragas rose to power in connection with the building of 
temples. Within twelve years of the colony's foundation, the 


people of the still incomplete city decided to erect a temple 
to Zeus. The complex undertaking, which even with modern 
methods and machines would still prove a formidable one, 
was naturally entrusted to a powerful man controlling a large 
number of slaves. The money donated by devout citizens 
was handed over to this contractor, and with it also the city's 
freedom, for instead of buying building materials he used 
the sacred money to hire mercenaries and immediately seized 
power. Thus began the rule of Phalaris of Acragas, most 
famous of early Sicilian tyrants, whose cruelty became so 
proverbial that a century later Pindar felt bound to censure 
it. He was only one of many tyrants, evil and benevolent, 
who rose to power in the early history of the colonies. Dis- 
organised groups in a strange country, without any stable 
means of government but the aristocracy of the original 
settlers, were a natural prey to the ambitions of a single man, 
and that series of tyrannies which in the mother-country had 
already given way to democracy now became a feature of 

The great men of remote antiquity attain immortality in 
remarkable fashion: their heads are not depicted in sculpture 
or painting or on coins for future generations to admire or 
criticise, their sayings are not transcribed, their qualities are 
not tabulated: instead they are identified with one or more 
stories which have a universal appeal, stories which may or 
rtiay not be transmuted into legends, and which are handed 
down, like the early myths and epics, from mother to son. 
As with Daedalus so with Phalaris; almost nothing at all is 
known about him except that he constructed a brazen bull 
in which he roasted his enemies, their cries of suffering being 
transformed by the cunning design of the machine to issue 
forth in sound like the roaring of a bull. That was the one 
important piece of information the people of Acragas chose 
to hand down to posterity about their first tyrant: the ines- 
sentials were filtered away, and his character epitomised in 
this one typical story. It is a horrible fashion in which to be 
immortalised, but since these legends, when they can be veri- 


fied, usually prove accurate, doubtless the cruelty of Phalaris 
was revolting enough to merit this fate. The story is in many 
respects a puzzling one. The first and most obvious difficulty 
is that Greeks never indulged in torture. Though they might 
sack cities and sell the women and children into slavery, 
though they took life indiscriminately on the battlefield, to 
prolong the sufferings of the dying was considered the mark 
of a barbarian. Yet Phalaris, to have become tyrant of a 
Greek city, must have been Greek. Perhaps, coming from 
Rhodes, he had some Persian blood, or had been given an 
opportunity of studying Persian customs. Another puzzling 
feature is that the instrument of torture should take the form 
of a bull. Was the whole bloody ritual human sacrifice in 
the worship of Moloch? The roaring of the bull suggests a 
feature of worship rather than a refinement designed to 
satisfy the tyrant's streak of cruelty, yet to have entrusted 
the building of a temple to someone whose orthodoxy was 
in doubt would have been unthinkable. So the simple legend 
becomes a riddle, just as many nursery rhymes do, a starting- 
point for poetry and monographs by erudite scholars. The 
fact remains that for fifteen years Phalaris exercised his mon- 
strous tyranny. Whether or not he ever built the temple to 
Zeus is a matter for speculation; no ruins of such a building 
remain, and in general Greek tyrants did not hedge their 
power with religious trappings. 

One other detail is known about Phalaris, one which in 
the circumstances proves significant. The tyrant offered to 
Athena a bronze krater inscribed with the words "Daedalus 
gave me as a present to his host Cocalus." Since Phalaris is 
supposed to have found this bowl when he captured Camicus, 
about the middle of the sixth century, here is evidence for 
the existence of a Daedalus of flesh and blood, an artist whose 
signed works were in existence seven centuries after his death. 
More encouraging still, if so inconsiderable an object as a 
krater was preserved over this period, there may well be hope 
of discovering a work of gold, the property of a goddess. 

Acragas did not learn the lesson of her first tyranny. Less 


than a hundred years later a wealthy nobleman, Theron by 
name, assumed power by exactly the same means as Phalaris. 
Theron however was a benevolent tyrant and his skill as a 
general brought Acragas victory and unprecedented wealth 
in the great war against Carthage. Shortly before 480 the 
Persians and Carthaginians formed an alliance whereby the 
Greek world was to be jointly attacked: while Xerxes bridged 
the Hellespont and marched across Macedonia to attack the 
cities of the Greek mainland, Hamilcar, using as a pretext 
the reinstatement of the tyrant of Himera, whom Theron had 
banished, was to land on the north coast of Sicily. Theron 
opposed his attack with large forces but suffered an initial 
defeat. Urgent messages for help were sent to his ally, Gelon 
of Syracuse, who arrived promptly with reinforcements, and 
on the same day as Salamis put an end to Persian ambitions 
in Greece, the Carthaginians were defeated at Himera. As 
many as 150,000 of their men were killed and Hamilcar took 
his own life by leaping on to a blazing pyre. It was the 
greatest day in Greek history: on two fronts the innumerable 
barbarian hosts had been routed: for the rest of the fifth 
century, until the Peloponnesian War broke out, Greece was 
free to bring her civilisation to fulfilment. 

For Acragas the victory meant an increase in fame, wealth 
and slaves: henceforward she was second only to Syracuse 
among the cities of Sicily. In the flush of unexpected, total 
glory an enormous temple to Olympian Zeus was planned 
and started. A multitude of Carthaginian slaves were set to 
work quarrying stone and hauling it up to the acropolis, cut- 
ting and shaping the colossal blocks from which the columns 
would be constituted, raising them into position with pulleys 
mounted on wooden scaffolding. It was to be twice the 
size of Doric temples, a monument worthy of the battle it 
would commemorate, over a hundred yards in length and 
half that in width: with the exception of two other buildings, 
one at Ephesus, the other at Miletus, it would be the most 
colossal achievement of all Greek architecture, and its style 
would be unique. So heavy was the superstructure that great 


caryatids, giant figures over twenty feet high, were set be- 
tween the columns to take part of the weight of the entabla- 

One year, five years, ten years passed and still the ropes 
groaned in the U-shaped grooves of the stone, as block upon 
block was added to the columns with their cedar-like girth, 
and the slaves grew sick and old under the weight of work. 
Building continued, but at a slightly slower rate: it was only 
a question of time before the roof would be completed. But 
meanwhile other more pressing affairs had diminished the 
glory of Himera, and the treasury was called upon to provide 
money for more essential needs. The proponents of the 
temple claimed that very soon now it would be completed, 
but even they had their doubts. They had not envisaged quite 
such a crushing labour. If it was to be a temple worthy of 
Olympian Zeus, the great god surely should lend his aid to 
this titanic work, whereas, on the contrary, he seemed to 
have turned against his worshippers. Like an infernal 
machine the great building exacted an increasing toll of 
human sacrifice: cords broke, obliterating an overseer under 
a weight of stone; one of the giant caryatids toppled and fell, 
killing two slaves, and, worse still, this was taken by the rest 
of the labour force as an ill omen. The cost of building 
materials rose; interest flagged, doubts began to prevail as 
to whether the temple would ever be completed. In concep- 
tion it had been a sort of Tower of Babel: hubris, not 
homage, had promoted it. 

Only a god could have completed a work so superhuman, 
and without divine assistance the temple did in fact remain 
uncompleted, only a small portion of the roof being covered 
over. It satisfied no one except the moralisers of antiquity, 
who found it a perfect illustration of some of their platitudes. 
It was from the very start an outlandish monster, a clumsy 
pterodactyl of enormous dimensions but little strength, and 
as such it could not survive for long. In a country of fre- 
quent earthquakes it did not possess adequate weapons of 
defence. The earth heaved, and with as little resistance as a 


castle of cards, the giants and their intolerable burden, walls 
and entablature, ornaments and the partial roof disinte- 
grated, flew apart, fell and lay still. The work of decades, 
the skill and labour of tens of thousands of men, was undone 
in half a minute. So the monster lies today, while litde men 
from the town of Agrigento dig and probe among the skele- 
ton, dwarfed even by the minor bones. In the centre of the 
temple area, among the foundations which delve twenty feet 
deep, one of the giants lies stretched out in death, his face 
worn by time to impassivity. Others were borne away by the 
little men to be interred in their local museum; this one alone 
lay quiet on the spot where he had fallen. 

That beauty is often a function of strength is proved by 
the building erected immediately after the uncompleted tri- 
bute to Zeus. The temple of Lacinian Hera, as it is incor- 
rectly named through confusion with a temple dedicated to 
the same goddess at Lacinium in Croton, stands at the eastern 
end of the acropolis, twenty-five columns and part of the 
architrave still erect. Beside it, at the extreme edge of the 
hill, are the remains of the altar, a hundred feet long, on 
which the blood of countless sheep and bulls was shed to 
appease the patron divinity. It was surely dedicated to some 
god or goddess of earth or water, for of all the temples it is 
most directly in touch with nature, looking over the valley 
and river to the hills and sea beyond. This is gentle country, 
tamed and softened to man's needs. All along the valley in 
February stretch almond trees in blossom, an indefinable 
shade between white and rose, like snow at sunrise or sunset, 
acting as a link between the dark brown fruitful earth, with 
its cactus and olive trees of similar tone, and the pale blue 
spring sky. If the almond blossom bridges the difference of 
colour, the temple provides a formal connection. Above the 
architrave the sky forms a pediment and roof to the ruined 
temple; while the stylobate remains completely earthbound, 
the fluted columns have in them something of earth and air, 
so that they lead on quite naturally to the open sky; they 
almost seem built to support it. 


The neighbouring temple, similar in style, was the next to 
be completed, in the middle of that opulent, glorious fifth 
century. It is called the Temple of Concordia for no other 
reason than that an inscription to this Roman divinity was 
found in the vicinity: its original patron is unknown. But the 
name is imaginatively correct, for of all the Greek temples in 
Sicily this has the most harmonious lines. The outer struc- 
ture is complete, having survived like the soul of the city after 
death. Four steps lead up to the fluted columns, six on the 
facades, thirteen on the long sides, and further steps precede 
the cella, each side of which is pierced by twelve arches. This 
structural alteration was carried out in the sixth century after 
Christ, when the temple was transformed into a church dedi- 
cated to SS. Peter and Paul, but more commonly called S. 
Gregory of the Turnips, after a Bishop of Agrigento. At the 
same time the wall between cella and opisthodomos was re- 
moved, and the spaces between the columns walled up. For 
twelve hundred years the temple served the Christian faith 
until, in 1748, the Prince of Torremuzza, a local nobleman, 
restored it to its original form. 

The building so satisfies the eye that there is no tendency 
to question the principles underlying its design, which seems 
the logical, even the unique way in which a building could 
be conceived. This impression derives partly from the fact 
that the temple exactly serves its purpose without going 
beyoad it, partly from artful contrivance: the space, for in- 
stance, between the columns varies in order to provide, at a 
distance, the effect of uniformity. The Temple of Concordia 
is inevitable as an Aristotelian syllogism, yet lilting as a 
Pindaric ode: it alone stands complete in a row of ruins, the 
ideal to which all the other, more earthly buildings are try- 
ing to attain. 

This triumph of temples along the crest of the acropolis is 
more eloquent of the greatness and riches of Acragas than 
all the stories of her wealthy men. They endorse the saying 
that while her people gave themselves to pleasure as if they 
would die tomorrow, they built as though they would live 


for ever. Through the greater part of the fifth century her 
twenty thousand citizens cultivated the graces and refine- 
ments of life, games and hunting, poetry and art, while as 
many as two hundred thousand slaves, the bulk of them 
descendants of those captured at Himera, made possible a 
calm and carefree existence. 

Of the great cities of Sicily, only Acragas remained neutral 
during the war between Athens and Syracuse. By nature she 
was not militant and she had an additional reason in this 
case for refusing to participate against the invader: Syracuse 
was her rival as the leading city of the island: should Syracuse 
drive out the Athenians, her hegemony in Sicily would be 
beyond dispute. So Acragas anxiously looked on, hoping 
that both sides would exhaust themselves in a struggle which 
would benefit no one but herself. Her wealth continued to 
increase, not as a trading city, for she had no port, but from 
the sale of goods manufactured by her slaves. Of these the most 
famous, the emblems of her luxury, were beds and cushions, 
which became celebrated throughout the Greek world. 

With refinement and abandon she cultivated the deli- 
cacies of the table, inventing new sauces and dishes, and 
preferred, above all other foods, fish the traditional Greek 
luxury especially tunny and lampreys, sea-urchins and eels. 
One of her citizens a certain Gellias built himself a wine 
cellar: three hundred jars, each holding a hundred amphorae, 
were cut out of the rock, and these jars were fed from a great 
pool which Jield as many as a thousand more. Here and there 
in Greek literature, wherever a particular instance of luxury 
is cited, the setting is usually Acragas. In the gymnasium, 
the utensils were of gold; noble girls built costly tombs for 
their favourite song-birds; at weddings the guests were num- 
bered by thousands. The greatest extravagance was reserved 
for those who brought fame to their city in the Greek games: 
thus a certain Exainetus who won a race at Olympia was 
welcomed home by three hundred chariots, drawn by milk- 
white steeds. Because this opulent life was unchallenged, 
either from within or without, for two generations, it de- 


clined into sheer luxury for the sake of luxury; the citizens 
became soft and undisciplined. At Athens, the only other 
contemporary city comparable in wealth, the ever-present 
danger of attack and the frequent sacrifice of the flower of 
her manhood disciplined and mortified any tendency to- 
wards indulgence or softness. Thus, when danger threatened 
and finally struck, Acragas was unprepared. A directive of 
the time decreed that soldiers on watch were not to have 
more than two pillows or three blankets: such conditions 
proved that the city was already lost. Moreover, she confided 
the bulk of her defence to mercenaries and a Spartan general 
who did not hesitate to accept a bribe from the Carthaginians 
in exchange for abandoning the city. In 406 the Cartha- 
ginians entered Acragas, sacked it outrageously and burned 
it: the stones of the Temple of Hera still bear traces of this 
disaster, the yellow sandstone being flushed rose-red where 
the flames desecrated the holy place. 

The city never recovered, and under Byzantine rule de- 
clined to such an extent that when the Arabs occupied the 
island, deeming the Greek site unworthy of settlement or 
defence, they fortified the present town, in a stronger posi- 
tion on the landward side of the valley. If this was the origi- 
nal Camicus where Daedalus built, no traces of his work or 
the treasure of Cocalus have been brought to light and the 
town in its present form is essentially Saracen: tortuous alley- 
ways and steps serving as gutters for the fawn-tiled, sloping 
roofs rather than as streets. Here the Greek city's life has 
been continued under another, meaner form, with no more 
slaves to build on a colossal scale, no golden utensils, no 
gymnasium, no milk-white steeds, no vast wine-cellars: all 
that is part of the wild and glorious past, and the little old 
town is content to look across the almond blossom at the sil- 
houetted temples, symbols of youth, and in February, when 
the blossom is at its best, to cross the valley coloured like 
mother-of-pearl and dance on the bare stone floors, among 
the broken columns. That annual commemoration, together 
with the sending of a few labourers to turn up the past in the 

former self, made neither in deference nor with regret, but 
simply because the golden days of youth are too magnificent 
to be quite forgotten. 

Yet the glory of the Greek city is preserved once and for 
all time in another form of art besides that of her temples. 
In the odes of Pindar the heroes of Acragas still win their 
Olympian victories, still move gracefully in a world of ivory 
and gold. Though not a native Sicilian, this poet sang of the 
island and above all of Acragas better than anyone has done 
before or since. 

Pindar was a poet who glorified men willing and wealthy 
enough to patronise him. In the new aristocratic society of 
his day such men were not as in Homer's time warrior 
princes but victors in the Olympic games, founders of cities 
and astute statesmen. Occasionally soldiers of exceptional 
renown, like Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse and victor of Himera, 
might be lauded by the poets, but the virtues of peace, not 
war, were the typical subject of the age. Pindar, by force 
of circumstance, was pledged to that interstellar space which 
lay between an Olympic victor's ancestors and the gods 
themselves: his task was to extend his subject's family history 
back through the centuries until it merged with an appro- 
priate deity. In one sense, therefore, Pindar was a poetical 
propagandist, his purpose to stabilise by myth-making a 
comparatively recent aristocracy. He fulfilled this task in 
supreme fashion. Hieron, who had been successful several 
times in the Olympic games, was extolled as lord of Syracuse, 
founder of Etna, mild towards his citizens and without envy 
towards the good, in language of beaten gold as convoluted 
as a cup by Benvenuto Cellini. Reading Pindar's odes, no 
one would suspect that this tyrant razed Greek cities to the 
ground, used an espionage system at Syracuse and as an 
individual was depraved, greedy, and cruel. 

Pindar, it is already clear, was possessed of a remarkable 
imagination: of all poets he is the supreme idealist. The 
coarsest material is grist to his mill: emerging as fine and 
fanciful fable. But it is not to be supposed that in singing 
odes to despicable tyrants he deliberately compromised him.- 


self. On the contrary, he considered his office one of sacred 
dignity and did not fail to moralise when occasion offered. 
Rather, Pindar was so completely a poet, so in thrall to his 
imagination which, by bold metaphor and similes drawn 
from every sphere of activity, glorified what to the unin- 
spired might seem most ordinary, that the less pleasant 
aspects of tyranny were transcended in the splendour of the 
whole poem. His piety to the gods was outstanding in an 
age of devout religion: he believed that from the gods are 
all means of human excellence, and therefore by celebrating 
human virtue and achievement he was indirectly performing 
a religious rite. In Pindar's time, therefore the poet pos- 
sessed both a religious and a political function, and, in addi- 
tion, his social position was assured by the patronage of men 
of wealth and influence. These circumstances were reflected 
in poetry charged at all points with religious and social sig- 
nificance. The individual man, the aristocrat, Nature's pride 
was its subject, for he controlled the destiny of an entire city: 
he stood only a little lower than the gods : in fact, as history 
and legend showed, the blood of heroes ran in his veins: let 
him display mildness and wise judgment in his rule, qualities 
to match his physical strength and beauty. 

"It was not idly, Pindar, that the swarm of bees 
fashioned the honeycomb about thy tender lips." A poet of 
the Greek Anthology wrote these words under Pindar's por- 
trait, and they can be matched by many other passages in 
which the Muses and the bees bring the gift of song to man- 
kind. Theocritus, for instance, in one of his idylls, mentions 
a goatherd, Comatas, who devoutly served the Muses and 
used to offer them his master's goats. His master to punish 
him shut him up in a cedar chest, but the bees came and fed 
him with honey, and when at the end of a year the master 
opened the chest, he found Comatas alive. 

There is only one close parallel to this symbolism: in 
northern countries the gifts of song and prophecy are said 
to be imparted by the honey-drink, mead. But there the 
connecting idea is the exaltation felt after taking a fermented 


drink, whereas in Greek literature the symbolism is probably 
based on the "sweetness" of the poet's words. Yet that idea 
could have been conveyed merely by calling his words, as 
Homer does, "honey-sweet." The truth seems to be more 
elaborate. The Greeks knew more about poetry than any 
people before or since: when they describe the Muses sending 
their bees to a poet's mouth and producing there a dripping 
honeycomb, they clearly intend that as an exact analogy of 
the poetic process. They mean that the poet is, first and fore- 
most, a man inspired, and since his inspiration comes from 
the Muses, who are goddesses, his poetry has a religious 
quality: it partakes of the absolute. Furthermore, honey is 
the food of the gods, and the poet, tasting the Muses' honey 
when he composes, feels himself divine, and indeed, through 
his song, may achieve immortality. 

The symbolism extends even further. Just as bees form 
honey from flowers, so the poet makes his song from the 
beauty around him and above all from natural beauty. He 
casts it in symmetrical pattern, and in Greek times the basic 
form was the six-stress line, to which the hexagonal cells of a 
honeycomb clearly correspond. Again, the comb designates 
the wax tablets on which the Greek poets inscribed their 
honey-sweet verses. 

Did Daedalus, in offering his golden honeycomb to Aphro- 
dite, intend his gift as a representation of the art of poetry? 
There can be no certain answer, but the fact that the honey- 
comb possessed this symbolic significance for the Greeks, and 
for Diodorus too, suggests that Daedalus may have been offer- 
ing all art, from sculpture to poetry, as a gift to the goddess. 

Agrigento has shown that the original artefact may 
possess a wider significance. Apart from Pindar's odes and 
the inscription on the krater dedicated by Phalaris, the town 
has no further clues to offer. But there remains another 
town, Selinunte, the Greek Selinus, with which Daedalus's 
name is associated in that territory he is said to have de- 
signed thermal baths and a visit there may throw brighter 
light on the man and the myth. 



ON THE south coast, within sight of Africa, lies scattered 
what might be the wreckage of an ancient fleet, blanched by 
the sun, eroded by the sea air. With the fragmented, fluted 
shells and intricate seaweed, the birds with broken wings and 
cork floats lost from fishing-nets, the larger ruin is united in 
death: it too seems to have been pulverised by the waves 
which now lap, a stone's throw away, so placidly and lazily 
under the unmasked sun. The wreckage is not strewn hap- 
hazardly, but heaped in two extensive graveyards : there has 
been a certain order even about the act of annihilation. One 
group lies on a slight eminence directly at the sea's edge; the 
other half a mile away to the east, a short distance inland. 
There is neither mountain nor tree to stand sentinel over the 
place of destruction all the surrounding country is flat 
enough to be a continuation of the sea but the sky itself, 
ampler here than anywhere else in the island and loftier, too, 
so intense is the light, acts both as shroud and tombstone to 
the ruins and, when the sun is at the meridian, as a consum- 
ing pyre. The extent of the remains is as vast as the devasta- 
tion is complete. On all sides, as though in the whole world's 
cemetery, . the grey-white debris, levelled like cut hay, 
stretches across the original valley of death. 

These desolate ruins since there is no visible proof the 
fact must be taken on trust constitute the last remaining 
vestiges of Selinus, once a thriving city of many thousand 
inhabitants. This silent wilderness was one of the great Greek 
colonies of Sicily, a bustling commercial metropolis possessing 
four ports, and as a maritime power second only to Syracuse. 
Being the most westerly of the Greek cities it was an impor- 


tant trading centre especially with Carthage, towards whom 
it preserved good relations until, urged on by Segesta, 
Selinus's commercial rival, Hannibal was induced to destroy 
the city with great slaughter at the end of the fifth century. 
(This general is unrelated to the celebrated Hannibal who 
later fought against Rome in the Second Punic War; the 
name, meaning "Grace of Baal," was common among the 
Carthaginians.) The wealth and size of Selinus are attested 
in death by the large number of temples seven in all 
which constitute the extensive ruins. Since in only two cases 
are the patron deities known, each is designated by a letter 
of the alphabet: a curious arrangement in which science has 
got the better of art, and unnecessary, for even in death each 
building has an individual character. The eastern group is 
composed of three temples, a wide collection of gigantic 
stones among which not a single column remains standing. 
The buildings have been subject to a systematic destruction 
such as can be accomplished only by natural means: the earth 
swallowed these magnificent works of art and regurgitated 
them in the form of broken, intractable bones, between 
which grow marguerites, occasional selinon, the golden pars- 
ley which gave its name to the city, and agave, its tall stem 
vertical against the sky, mocking the fragmented fallen 

Temple G, among Sicilian buildings exceeded in size only 
by the temple of Zeus at Acragas, underwent the most spec- 
tacular death. Spread-eagled drums, some fluted, others 
smooth, have smashed against each other and crumbled like 
sea-shells; the monolithic capitals, constituting a small fraction 
of the total mass, are almost as large as a circus ring; columns 
have the girth of a castle tower. Fragments of the architrave 
rear up like the hull of a sinking vessel and the smaller frag- 
ments of stone would serve as the foundation for a palace. 
It is no wonder the temple was a hundred and fifty years in 
course of construction archaic and classical styles can be 
detected in the various sections yet, like all such buildings, 
never completed. Close to the master lie buried the servants. 


While the ruins of Temple F, an archaic construction, have 
been devoured by dog and bird of prey, so that only joints 
and minor limbs remain, the neighbouring building. Temple 
E, is well preserved. Like a wedding-cake which has melted 
under the sun, it has toppled in a line, to constitute on the 
ground a bas-relief of its former self. It belongs to the fifth 
century and shows the Doric style at its best, the metopes, 
now in the museum at Palermo, being amongst the finest in 

Of these metopes the most consummate shows Heracles in 
combat with the Amazon. The demi-god draped in a tiger's 
skin, the head of which lolls back behind his own, is lung- 
ing obliquely at the Amazon's helmet, his left foot covering 
her right to prevent escape. In a complementary bas-relief 
of dogs attacking Actaeon, similar diagonal lines, this time 
sloping the other way, again suggest the intensity of the con- 
flict. The artist has achieved that well-defined, vigorous 
movement necessary in sculptures which are to be viewed 
from a considerable distance. Yet action did not preclude 
subtlety of expression. In the metope depicting Zeus and 
Hera, the god is seated leaning backwards, his face eager 
with passion, his right arm outstretched, grasping the god- 
dess by the wrist, while Hera stands beside him absolutely 
impassive, her garments neatly pleated, the personification 
of sulky fire. 

To appreciate the excellence of these metopes they must 
be compared with the sculptures, a century earlier in date, 
taken from Temple C, in the western group of ruins at 
Selinus. Here the figures are still static: the breath of life 
has not yet blown through them. In a bas-relief of Heracles 
holding two dwarfs upside down by the hair, the hero's body 
is too long for his neck and head, which have been ingenu- 
ously compressed to fit the allotted space, while in the repre- 
sentation of Perseus decapitating the Gorgon, the artist's 
limitations are revealed in the faces, which he was able to 
depict only staring directly to the front, and the feet, which 
he could represent only sideways. There is an artificiality of 


posture, action and expression about these archaic bas-reliefs 
which is reminiscent o tableaux: they are child's drawings 
which prepare a way for adult art a century later. 

Yet despite their crudity they are well in advance of their 
age, and recall Diodorus's remarks that Daedalus first gave 
statues open eyes and parted legs and outstretched arms. 
These proofs of a flourishing school of sculpture in an island 
remote from the mainstream of Greek art suggest that a local 
school was then in existence which must have traced its 
origin to some more advanced culture. Perhaps that culture 
was Cretan, and the connecting link a historical Daedalus: 
as yet, these can be little more than guesses. 

Temple C, with forty-two columns, was the largest of the 
temples on the acropolis. Under its fallen pillars lie buried 
several houses of a Byzantine village of the fifth century after 
Christ, for following upon its sack by the Carthaginians 
Selinus decayed and was generally inhabited only by hermits 
and nomads. The chief interest of this village is that it pro- 
vides the means of dating the destruction of Selinus. The 
earthquake which rocked the city to its grave must have oc- 
curred after the fifth century but before the time when the 
Spaniards began to keep regular annals. Twelve columns of 
this same temple were recently re-erected in a row, crowned 
by their architrave. In no sense do they detract from the 
effect of total destruction; on the contrary, by providing an 
echo of the city's former glory they serve only to accentuate 
the disaster and present ruin. The remaining temples of the 
acropolis are separated one from another by wide, straight 
streets, intersecting at right angles. The careful planning 
which was lavished on the city's construction evidently did 
not extend to defensive fortifications; as Hannibal said, after 
having put sixteen thousand of the city's inhabitants to the 
sword: "Since the Selinuntines do not know how to defend 
their liberty, they deserve to become slaves." 

When the past triumphs of Selinus are known, its works 
of sculpture viewed and its streets frequented, the full magni- 
tude of the destruction becomes evident. Neither fire nor pil- 


lage nor decay could so utterly annihilate: earth and sea 
alone are capable of overthrowing buildings conceived on 
such a grand scale and constructed with such titanic 
materials, until not one of the megalithic blocks is left upon 
another. This city, which for the Selinuntines as for the 
Greeks was not a mere place of habitation, but a work of art 
and beauty to house citizens as the body houses the soul, 
should have been treated less wantonly, or at least veiled in its 
shame* As it is, the outrage, the total destruction lie re- 
vealed, now, as for centuries past, uneff aced by the activity of 
a later age. 

Selinus yields no evidence of Daedalus's work or even of his 
existence. The gigantic stones which, piled high like a 
child's blocks, once constituted the temple pillars, are now 
overthrown and in some cases pulverised. The harbours are 
silted up, the whole site harrowed by earthquake. What hope 
could there be of finding an artist's imprint here where every- 
thing bears the unique stamp of disaster? Even the metopes, 
safely in the Palermo museum, provide only the slightest clue 
to the riddle of Daedalus : as for the ungarnered ruins, they 
merely gape at the inquirer with an empty, desolate stare. 

Yet perhaps, after all, the toppled town does hold a solution, 
not in the ruins, but in its situation and its own name. 
Selinus means the place where the selinon flourishes. Here 
and there, scattered across the fields which formerly were 
streets and temple precincts flowers the wild celery which the 
Greeks gave as an emblem to the city. Its stout, furrowed 
stem bears greenish-white flowers between large, smooth, 
pinnate leaves. The clue perhaps lies in its botanical name, 
afium graveolenS) the strong-scented flower of the bees. 
Soon, now, when the flowers are fully opened, bees will come 
down from the hills to fertilise the only survivors of the 
ruined city, and in doing so obtain their by-product of 

Bee-keeping is an art usually unknown to primitive people 
and Homer, for instance, is acquainted only with wild bees. 
Yet in the heyday of Cretan civilisation bee-keeping was prac- 


tised, and the bee appears to have played an important part 
in the island's religious ritual. Some of the earliest Greek 
myths about bees and honey, which were probably indige- 
nous to Crete, are those connected with the Mother-goddess 
Rhea and the birth of her son Zeus, who was concealed in a 
cave full of sacred bees which fed him on honey. The ancients 
believed that bees were born spontaneously from the decay- 
ing flesh of oxen, and in Crete, where the bull had a religious 
significance, honey was probably considered a sacred sub- 
stance, and the bee seems to have been a royal emblem. 

In classical times Sicily was famed for its honey and it 
is not unlikely, therefore, that bee-keeping was introduced 
from Crete to Sicily at an early date, perhaps by a historical 
figure nained Daedalus. Such a supposition would demand a 
new and more high-handed approach to the problem of the 
golden honeycomb. 

In the first place, its artificial nature would mean no more 
than that it had been formed regularly by bees in a man- 
made hive, as opposed to the usual wild honey stolen peri- 
lously from rock or tree-trunk. To a people unacquainted 
with the art it might well have seemed that the bee-keeper 
himself made the symmetrical object which he withdrew 
from the hive like a masterpiece from his workshop. The 
honeycomb was then offered to the great goddess of the 
island. Honey was a sacred substance; in Cretan rites it was 
probably offered to the Earth-mother; what more natural 
than that Daedalus, a Cretan, should have continued this 
time-honoured ceremony in the country of his exile? The 
occasion would have represented a unique and memorable 
innovation in Sicilian religion, the sort of event which finds 
its way into oral tradition. Diodorus's story, translated from 
mythological to factual terms, means simply that Daedalus 
introduced bee-keeping to Sicily and offered hive-honey, in 
Cretan fashion, to the local goddess. The masterpiece in gold 
was simply a poetic description of something else: to seek it 
would be as absurd as to try to locate the gates of heaven. 

* Yet such an explanation, however recondite, does not in 


the last resort prove satisfying or convince. First and most 
important, it does not fulfil an instinctive preference for the 
concrete rather than the abstract. Wistaria, caught for an 
instant on a hot day both as scent and perceptible waves re- 
bounding from a sun-lit wall, spells happiness better than a 
library of dusty volumes on the subject. Diodorus spoke of 
a honeycomb fashioned in gold: to be fobbed off with the 
introduction of a new industry is to lose the honey and re- 
tain only the wax. Explanations of the unverifiable can claim 
acceptance only by satisfying completely and at all levels: 
this particular explanation fails to meet the expectations 
aroused by Diodorus's text. 

Secondly, bee-keeping does not seem to tally with 
Daedalus's other activities. As an artist and craftsman, his 
role is to imitate nature, but only by circumventing and 
thwarting natural processes. Nature is the artist's enemy, not 
his ally. Daedalus moreover is a technician and engineer 
he is said to have invented carpentry and the masts and yards 
of boats but he is never conceived as a countryman, whereas 
bee-keeping is a highly skilled work which demands, before 
everything, familiarity with a particular part of the country, 
its seasons, flowers, hiding-places, and also the habits of the 
insect in its wild state. Furthermore there is no good reason 
why an innovation such as bee-raising should not have been 
transmitted as such, instead of being recorded under the 
cryptic form of allegory and attached to the name of a man 
famed for totally different achievements. 

The best way to disprove any such interpretation will be 
to find Daedalus's original work of art. The search must con- 
tinue, but along what lines? Oftly one other work by 
Daedalus in Sicily is mentioned by Diodorus, a reservoir neai 
Megara Iblea on the east coast, of which no trace remains, 
The thread attached to the artist's name has come to an end: 
for a while the passage through Sicily will have to be randoir 
and intuitive. Erice had been the point of departure: onl) 
one other place in the island bears any similarity to Aph^o 
elite's shrine: Taonnina, Erice's twin, on the east coast 


within sight of Etna. This town, perhaps by contrast, per- 
haps by a negative quality, may give Erice a new significance, 
and even if it does not, can, as well as any other place, disclose 
the country of Daedalus's adoption and open up a path to the 



THE brow of Taormina is wreathed by its theatre. Even if 
certain evidence from other sources were lacking, the posi- 
tion alone of the building would attest a Hellenistic origin. 
Where the other Greek theatres of Sicily all works of the 
classical period are sited towards one particularly far- 
reaching view, usually of the sea or mountains, the theatre of 
Taormina is on all sides deluged to distraction with multiple 
beauty. Nor is it only the extent of the surroundings which 
amazes: the land- and sea-scapes have a rare, closely-worked 
quality as though specially designed to please a fastidious and 
highly discriminating eye, tired of all that is obvious. This 
theatre was sited by connoisseurs, by descendants of a long 
line of artists so trained in the subtleties of scenery that only 
the most elaborate and ornate views could any longer satisfy. 
The theatre of Segesta faces the bare mountains and looks 
beyond to the sea: in its straightforward, unmannered way 
the view is unsurpassable. The theatre of Taormina takes the 
same subject and, like a court poet elaborating a folk ballad, 
refines it out of all recognition. Straight lines are retained 
only in the case of Etna, the central point of the background, 
and this mountain, with its snow and smoke and ever-moving 
veil of clouds, is already touched with exoticism. The other 
peaks lie inland to the right, so that their naturally bizarre 
shapes are seen obliquely: jagged, acute, multiple peaks, 
some crowned with a cluster of houses, others standing senti- 
nel with a superimposed castle. Not only their form but their 
texture also has this baroque appearance. Here there are no 
smooth-grained hills of uniform colour: instead a complex 
foundation of spurs and re-entrants, of trees and cultivated 


ground, of vines in terraces and groves of citrus fruit, in 
which green appears in every conceivable shade; as on the 
palette of a painter trying in vain to find exactly the right 
colour for leaf or hill. In such a variety of shape, surface and 
shade the eye loses its way and that was the intention of the 
designers: to bewilder with excess of subtlety. 

The same principles determined its position in regard to 
the water. Whereas at the theatre of Syracuse, where the 
view is centred on the Mediterranean, the sea lies at a mile's 
distance, no more than a suggestion, a prosaic line without 
vivid appeal, at Taormina the theatre rises sheer out of the 
sea to preside over an audience of waves. Like a seagull it 
hovers, poised half-way between two elements the ever- 
changing pattern and colour of the water harmonising with 
the multiple texture of the adjacent countryside. This ten- 
sion between earth and sea finds its expression in the smoul- 
dering, uncertain pyramid of Etna, which occupies the centre 
of the stage, a peak which leads naturally to the third ele- 
ment in the panorama the Sicilian sky. In spring this prcn- 
vides the variations necessary to show the other scenery to 
advantage: long periods of intense sunshine alternate with 
cloudy adagios to produce an irregular pattern of light and 
shade on land and sea, accentuating their complex, florid 
texture. The wind, too, at this season is variable and sets 
itself to confuse and elaborate the strong prevailing current 
northwards towards the Straits of Messina. 

If the theatre dominates the town, the southern hills, and 
even Etna itself, it is in turn dominated by the peaks lying 
immediately to -the west, foremost along which is Monte 
Tauro, with its acute-angled summit surmounted by the 
ruined castle. This again is an advantage, for an altogether 
omnivident view, like a canvas entirely suffused with light, 
would tend to surfeit the eye. As it is, the towering peaks 
accentuate the lofty position of the theatre, place it, and lend 
a secretive quality to a landscape which otherwise might seem 
too forthright. It is not for nothing that a semaphore has been 
established within a stone's throw of the theatre: this is the 


most outstanding position in a range renowned for its many 
vantage-points. For not only does the view extend without 
interruption south and east: it also stretches north, behind 
the theatre, completing the circle and revealing the place as 
a kind of earthly observatory. 

The view northwards is perhaps the most richly endowed 
of all. The mountains continue close to the sea in a succes- 
sion of ridges and valleys as far as the island itself , while out 
of the haze which hangs about the horizon emerges the hill- 
topped coast of Calabria. In certain lights this coast appears a 
mirage, so that one can look at it indefinitely without being 
quite sure whether or not it is a construction of sunlight and 
clouds. Were the coast a little farther distant, it would be 
altogether invisible except on the clearest of days, while, 
brought closer, it would lack that ambivalent quality which 
makes it fit so well into the scenery of this theatre. The view 
has another unique feature. On the fourth mountain to the 
north stands another town Forza d'Agro which occupies 
a position only a little less dramatic than that of Taormina. 
Looking across, as though in a mirror, at this image of her- 
self, the Greek town reflects on her beauty and rank, her 
exalted position and incomparable surroundings, and not 
without reason yields to self-admiration. 

If the choice of site is Greek, the theatre itself is Roman. 
The thin, brown bricks and mortar, the arches that have 
crumbled, the grandiosity which covered up shoddy work- 
manship all these features are the antithesis of Greek art, 
so that the actual construction apart from its view fails to 
commemorate the original founders. To accommodate the 
masses, arches, on which were erected tiers of wooden seats, 
were built round the circumference of the Greek structure, 
fitted into the natural slope of the mountain, and on either 
side of the stage vast parascenia were erected to house the 
extraordinary scenic effects which had taken the place of the 
actual drama in the audience's favour. As if, in this spot 
above all, there were need of wooden painted scenery ! These 
brick buildings, with their colossal arches, are not in them- 


selves unsightly in fact, their brown terracotta contrasts 
well with the prevailing blue and green. Where the Romans 
reveal their insensitivity is in the wall which they built across 
the diameter of the semicircle, behind the stage. Although 
pierced with arches, this effectively destroyed the balance 
between sea and mountains, destroyed, in fact, the whole 
purpose for which the Greeks had chosen the site. Poor 
building contains the seeds of its own decay, and fortunately 
the wall is now in ruins, across which the original view. is 
again visible. Roman columns have been erected in arbitrary 
fashion against the ruined wall they were discovered 
piecemeal during the nineteenth century and these serve 
to strengthen the otherwise too dilapidated foreground, and 
to give a strong upward line to a view which because of its 
seemingly limitless extent might tend to flatness and dis- 

In the theatre one is in a world apart, a world man seems 
to have designed in order to forget himself among scenery 
which is totally unrelated to that of workaday life. All that 
is human in this place of transformation is rendered remote 
and insignificant: the houses which creep impertinently up 
the slopes of Etna are too minute, from such a height and 
distance, to be treated even as dolls' houses; the fishing-boats 
which put out from the cove of Mazzaro are idle and incon- 
sequential as miniature water-beetles. In such a theatre the 
Olympian gods might have been imagined watching mortal 
men engaged in their love-affairs and wars, intervening occa- 
sionally to take pity or inflict punishment: spectators who 
could take a hand in the performance, or rather puppet- 
masters who could manipulate men's lives not in any arbi- 
trary fashion but according to a story written by the Fates. 
The sounds and disturbances of the lower world can no more 
rise to this auditorium than a fountain with its loftiest jets 
can extinguish the stars : the sound of voices sharp-edged in 
quarrel, of suffering, of catastrophe^ dissolve impotently in 
mid-air before they attain these heights. At night more than 
ever a world apart, when in the centre of the semicircular 


orchestra the heavens form a diadem of constellations about 
one's head, and the theatre itself seems to have an existence 
separate from that of the earth, to become one of the in- 
numerable stars. A world apart, where beauty instead of 
being trampled on is conserved and honoured, where the 
contemplation of beauty is still deemed not a luxury but a 
necessity. A world apart, existing in another order of time. 
The ruined arches and columns which frame the view south- 
wards are the battered rind to fruit which still grows in the 
garden of Eden. The columns which stand in a row sup- 
porting a void, the arches which upheave their half-circle 
of stones with no apparent reason, the deep T-shaped pit 
which once gave birth to scenic marvels, all these being now 
without purpose or urgency in their own right, serve to show 
off the timeless character of the picture they frame. A world 
apart, at the intersection of time. Southwards lies the past, 
in the shape of Etna, still giving form to matter, the world 
still being created, under the appearance of white-hot lava 
lying on the mountain slopes, cooling in the Sicilian sun. 
The theatre itself is the present moment, having no existence 
in itself: merely the sum of its memories and expectations. 
Northwards, emerging out of the sky and sea, still precise 
and idealised, is the future, the coast of Calabria. A world 
apart, where every thought is touched with the physical 
characteristics of the place, to participate in the sublime, the 
ideal, the eternal. The theatre embraces the summit of 
purely natural beauty, a less remote but more constant half- 
moon, under whose influence all things human are trans- 

If the theatre belongs to an ideal order, the castle of Monte 
Tauro, which provides the other magnificent view of Taor- 
mina, is so much a part of the terrestrial world that it seems 
a natural rather than a human construction, and if the 
theatre takes a poetical view of reality, the castle is alto- 
gether precise, military and practical. It has occupied the 
dominant feature of the surrounding country in accordance 
with text-book strategy and surveys the approaches to its 


town from a well-nigh inaccessible position. The building is 
polygonal in shape, following the contours of the mountain 
crest, which falls steeply away: directly to the sea on every 
side but the west, where, after an interval of lower ground, 
the country again rises to mountains. Monte Tauro is arrow- 
shaped and the castle is its prey, a bird pierced to the heart, 
fallen directly on the apex of the sharp formation of rock. 
It is in every respect a shattered, tumbled thing, its grey stone 
walls reduced from their former strength and glory to piles 
of rubble, its towers toppled, its rooms unroofed. It has out- 
lived the days of usefulness: now in its dotage, amid dreams 
of past battles, it is tolerated, and, worst humiliation of all, 
daily attacked and captured. North of the ruined V-shaped 
wall which once protected the vulnerable escarpment at one 
side of the castle, a zigzag path leads up to the ruins. Near 
the summit stands a sanctuary dedicated to the Madonna 
della Rocca, built partly into the mountain-side, for here 
as elsewhere throughout the island overwhelming natural 
beauty coupled with a powerful position is deemed hallowed 
ground. Those who pass this way pick wild flowers, mari- 
golds, campions, marguerites, speedwells, and place them in 
crannies in the doorway as an offering, so that the chapel at 
first seems abandoned to nature. So high is this spot that 
the town below, which itself can claim to command half the 
Mediterranean, seems built in a deep valley. The occasional 
sounds of cocks crowing, schoolboys at play, mules braying, 
fail to animate the rooftops and towers of the town, which 
gives less the impression of activity than does the mountain- 

Here all is frantic with spring. Through the faint green 
foliage of the almond-trees finches and pipits are darting 
in frenzied love-play, the hens playing at fleeing the cocks, 
not to escape but simply that there may be a chase; from the 
crannies of walls scurry lizards, as though spontaneously 
generated by the heat, their eyes like the jewels in a watch; 
swallowtail butterflies, their black markings on yellow wings 
the original pattern for lava and limestone mouldings which 


are such a feature on the medieval buildings of the town, 
move to a less urgent rhythm, fluttering like miniature kites 
in a failing wind. The wild flowers which fill every corner 
of the landscape undulate slowly in the breeze to the dance 
of spring, while insects of a thousand kinds and shapes 
thread the blossoms together according to a pre-arranged laby- 
rinthine pattern. Amid all these rearrangements and renova- 
tions the main colours and lines of the landscape (since olives 
and cypresses are the dominant trees) show little change 
from winter. There is here none of the sudden green of 
thrusting buds which makes deciduous trees the very emblem 
of a northern spring: the change is one of light and shade 
rather than of colour and line: cypresses put on more un- 
compromising mourning and alchemist olives add silver to 
that mixing bowl in which every shade of green has a place; 
while the change of season in sea and sky is less marked even 
than in the landscape: their blues become perhaps more than 
ever interchangeable. 

The crucial sign of Sicilian spring is one invisible alike to 
eye and ear: a sudden, steadily increasing surge of heat. The 
sun which has never been absent for long all through the 
winter and on some propitious days has shone uninterrup- 
tedly from deep azure skies, like a rocket which suddenly 
bursts a second time to add golden stars to blue, now gives 
warmth as well as light. This is a signal for the beginning 
of the dance, which from the very first assumes such a tempo 
that it seems the dancer will fall down exhausted before the 
spectacle is complete. Where in less prodigal countries wild 
flowers as a special grace are scattered here and there in 
favoured spots, in this island they are lavished by the 
meadowful in colours which, were the blossoms less numer- 
ous, might clash or appear gaudy but which, in fact, by their 
very profusion harmonise with the general spirit o opulence. 
Under the balconies of the town below house-martins build 
at a prodigious rate, darting backwards and forwards from 
the nearby fountain with pebbles and pellets of mud, form- 
ing an inverted dome of caked clay round their own breasts, 


choosing invariably the most shaded spot as protection from 
sunshine which already in this season might crack the mud 
walls. These birds go to their work methodically and infal- 
libly as master-masons, yet many of them did not even exist 
a year ago. Without faltering or delaying a moment they lay 
pebble upon pebble to construct a nest identical with those 
made by their parents and ancestors, and with those, built at 
a less urgent rate, in northern countries. If the variety of the 
wild flowers is astonishing, this uniformity is even more so. 
In the frenzy and abandon of this southern dance, animal 
instinct is handed on like a magic baton from one line of 
partners to the next without ever being dropped or dis- 
torted, without ever becoming worn or frayed. That would 

be less extraordinary were not the constituent parts so com- 
j ft. 

plex and intangible, composed of innumerable little graceful 
actions and flights, each one as remarkable an achievement 
as the semi-annual marathon migration. The performance is 
. so complicated and extended, the artist so delicate and un- 
tutored : it is as though a child prodigy were executing flaw- 
lessly and at sight a continuous recital of all the Beethoven 

The rebuilding which the house-martins are accomplishing 
in this fashion is taking place across the whole island, and the 
activity which seems so mammoth on the mountainside of 
Taormina is being repeated and magnified throughout 
Sicily. In the fashioning of flowers even the foundations of 
the island participate: the very rock brings forth a blossom, 
walls become trellises of wistaria, balconies trail carnations 
and begonias, steep stairways soften their flight with pots of 
geraniums. For the towns, too, take part in the rebirth. If 
the Sicilian people experience none of the northerner's 
amazement that the world has been re-created out of dark- 
ness and deathly cold in a fresh beauty, they give spring as 
excited a welcome, for winter was never a season to which, 
like the northerner, they could grow accustomed: no fires, 
no comfortable homes, no woollen clothing to break the edge 
of frost and rain, no indoor amusements to while away 


the long winter evenings. These people have their home in 
the open air, in the streets or in the fields, and during the 
first days of spring they return, after a period of exile, to their 
home. Thus spring, which in colder countries is looked upon 
as extraordinary and even miraculous, is here treated as an 
event which in every sense of the word is quite natural. There 
is consequently no popular bewilderment or awe : the people 
take up their song where they left it off in late autumn, 
the young men once more gather round the baroque foun- 
tain in the cathedral square to tease pretty girls as they pass, 
and when darkness falls to make love. 

Only at night does Taormina assume a particular existence 
of its own, for as long as the sun shines it is merely a nid de 
pie, a vantage-point from which vistas radiate in every direc- 
tion. During the hours of light the town, like a painter, 
becomes the beauty it regards so intensely and with such 
mastery: at night it recollects itself and tries to find a mean- 
ing for the memories of the day. The flowers on balconies 
and walls, denied their display of colour, make up for the 
loss with intensified perfume which permeates the streets and 
alleyways and flights of steps, giving each a particular iden- 
tity, so that the traveller can find his way about the town 
merely by recognising the pattern of the varied scents. 
Night, too, softens the blatant lines and dulls the showy 
colours of those buildings which make the town a resort, 
leaving the medieval palaces to receive the admiration which 
is their due. For Taormina achieved greatness only after the 
Norman conquest and remains essentially a medieval town. 
It was originally a late Greek foundation, for long a vassal 
of Syracuse, so extensive was the power of the island's capital 
city, but like those other mountain strongholds, Erice and 
Enna, it became powerful and wealthy in the Middle Ages, 
when warfare had reached a stage at which the rock-built 
fortress was the dominant military factor. 

Despite such buildings as the small cathedral and the 
Palazzo Corvaia, with its courtyard graced by an external 
staircase, the town remains essentially a vantage-point of 


natural beauty and of the distant mountain which smokes 
ominously on the horizon. From Taormina one is drawn 
naturally there, from the world of ideas to the world of flux 
and brute matter, by its immense and compelling size and 
also because all these surrounding towns have taken their 
origin, at one time or another, from its inextinguishable fire. 



ETNA is less a single mountain than a whole planet. While 
Fujiyama, for instance, has been the subject of innumerable 
paintings, so that in a sense it stands as a figure not only of 
Japan but of the country's art, Etna never has and never will 
be adequately depicted: one cannot paint a whole new world. 
Yet of all mountains in Europe it is one of the most re- 
nowned: for centuries it has been the great Mediterranean 
bonfire, a lighthouse to sailors from Phoenicia and Spain, 
from Crete and Corsica, a symbol of safety and disaster. 

The mountain does not stand alone, as so many extinct 
volcanoes do mere monuments posing to be admired but 
hunts with a whole pack of lesser monsters, their jaws foam- 
ing. The whole volcanic mass is in fact a great military fort- 
ress, connected by underground tunnels. Mt. Etna is the 
highest tower, guarded by a network of subsidiary forts, 
some dangerous, others ruined; some named Mt. Leone, 
Mt. Gemmellaro; others christened Mt. S. Leo, Mt. S. 
Maria; others nameless, but none the less formidable for 
that. The perimeter of the whole military system measures 
some hundred and fifty miles, and the slope is correspond- 
ingly gentle. The ascent is unsensational, considering the 
mountain's great height: orange groves give way reluctantly 
to cherry and apple trees, and these in turn to oaks and 
beeches, which once entirely covered the middle reaches of 
the mountain but are now sparsely sprinkled. Higher still 
lies the desert, lava too overwhelming for anyone to clear and 
pile into neat walls, lava in boulders, fragments, slabs, waves; 
brute matter, prime substance devoid of all shape and even 
of all colour, for this dark grey does not merit such a name. 



It might seem to be a petrified sea of lava, yet a sea has form, 
while this nameless stuff has refused all shape. If that v\^ 9 
dear to the Greek philosophers, could ever be pictured, it 
would surely be as lava, lying on the extreme verge of 
nothingness. Here it rises in the shape of a crater, there it 
falls in a valley, like grey, useless slag; solidified in mon- 
strous chunks, and broken into particles. This, then, is the 
beginning of everything: this is the world still in creation, 
this is the underlying enduring substance cold grey lumps 
of molten rock, formless as ghosts, crushing as millstones, and 
all the rest, brown earth, green grass, even the rugged moun- 
tains which at one time seemed so forbidding and shapeless 
but which now appear almost graceful, are mere superficial 
ornaments which conceal the essential horror. For this scene 
is horrible brute, devoid of vegetation or flower, of any 
animal or human trace whatever it might be a meteor, it 
might be the moon. Such a grey wilderness was not designed 
for men, or is it true that the whole world was once like this 
before mankind softened and humanised it, giving it a toler- 
able, inhabitable form? Were the poets of nature, the singers 
of flower and tree and the beauties of Mother Earth, to look 
beneath the surface, at the lava of Etna, at the basis of living 
things, they would be as shocked as a lover confronted with 
the skeleton of his mistress. 

Higher still, above the snowline, the formation assumes 
an even more unearthly aspect. Drifts of snow, like the white 
pain on a clown's face, stretch along the mountain-side: 
within the extinct craters it is heaped high, while the steep 
verges are black and bare. Not long ago the snow on Etna 
used to be the principal source of revenue for the Bishop of 
Catania, in the days when Etna furnished snow and ice not 
only to the whole island of Sicily but also to Malta and a 
great part of Italy. Even the peasants in the eighteenth 
century used to regale themselves with ices in the summer, 
and the nobles declared that a famine of snow would be more 
grievous than a famine of either corn or wine. Now it is 
scorned and allowed to lie side by side with the lava, close 


to the smoking cone, its surface grey with dust from the 
volcanoes and with fine particles of embers. From a height 
of two thousand metres these alternating patches of snow 
and lava, dotted with minor volcanoes, stretch as far as a 
perimeter of clouds, which stand like the outer wall of the 
great fortress, cutting it off from sea and plain. Yet only 
fifteen miles away, beneath the line of clouds, lies Catania, 
its network of streets and buildings defenceless as an open 
city. Fifteen miles is a formidable distance for a huge rock 
to be hurled, yet Etna has twice in recorded history sent down 
those fifteen miles such a tremendous torrent of lava as to 
destroy the city to the last house. 

This thought, taken with the authentic descriptions by the 
Greek poets, gives such a vivid image of the volcano's power 
that, when one stands on the summit, among the ashes and 
smoke and gases, the whole rite of eruption is, as it were, 
enacted. First, like the noisy clanging of scenery from peace 
to war during the interval of a play, rumblings and subter- 
ranean thunder, accompanied by minor earthquakes, a pro- 
cess which may continue for a few days or for whole months 
at a time. Then, suddenly, a fissure while the throat of the 
monster fills with murderous foam, and hot ashes are ejected 
like sighting shots. From the depths of the volcano, accom- 
panied by red shooting flames and smoke, the torrent of 
molten lava, many million tons of boiling rock, is thrown 
up to the sky like a new comet, to fall in a wide curve far 
down the mountain slopes, until an entire white-hot ocean 
is soon coursing down the incline, slowly but relentlessly, 
crushing with weight and heat all things, animate or inani- 
mate, which lie in its path. Grass, trees, woods, houses, the 
least flower with the tallest oak, single house and entire city 
alike are as though they had never existed annihilated 
under the glowing mass. From deluge, from flood, from 
mere fire there might be some means of escape, some way of 
resisting and surviving, but this hot, molten stream, which 
combines the terrors of water, fire, earth, and air, is irresis- 
tible there is nothing to do but to fall down, petrified, and 


die. It is a terrestrial rite of purification, a primitive process 
of nature which takes no account of man and which man 
cannot harness or humanise. Significantly, the Greeks, who 
made out of many mountains divinities in human shape, 
never deified Etna: it was always the slumbering monster, 
the great unpredictable force which seemed to deny man a 
right to the earth. 

The inexhaustible volcano has remained active through the 
centuries, drawing round its outer works a great crowd of 
worshippers. The south-eastern slopes are among the most 
thickly populated regions in the world such is the power 
of the unknown, the attraction of the catastrophic, and also 
the fertilising effect of lava. Along the rich lower slopes row 
upon row of vines and fruit trees rise, like an opium dream 
out of smoke, from the black soot which is the earth, for this 
ugly dark soil is, paradoxically, among the richest in alt 
Sicily. The wine from these vineyards has a special mineral 
flavour, coming from a level deeper than the roots of the vine, 
with magical properties, like a love potion compounded by a 
wizard. The people in these parts live royally off the refuse 
of the monster, but their grey squalid landscape resembles a 
rubbish dump. Farther up the slope the houses disappear, but 
close to the summit, incorporating that casa degli Inglesi 
built in 1811 by amateur scientists among the English naval 
forces occupying the island, stands the observatory, a minute 
encrustation where little men patiently watch the monster's 
moods. Here they compile statistics and relevant facts, fill- 
ing over the years many thick volumes concerning the temper 
of the beast, its exhalations and rumblings, its effusions and 
and explosions. Here, close to the wide fatal mouth, they 
attempt, scientifically and methodically, to predict the un- 
predictable, to catch with their subtle nets the last surviving 
relic of an age when man went in awe of nature. They have 
measured the monster's height and found it two hundred 
feet lower than a century ago, while the present depth of the 
crater has been computed at some six hundred feet: mean- 
while minor eruptions continue, not without casualties. And 


still the measurements and calculations proceed in an at- 
tempt, as it were, to read the great beast's palm, to foretell its 

This concern to know the monster by means of its physical 
characteristics, to bring it within the compass of human 
understanding, even eventually to control it, is as old as the 
Greeks. Close to the observatory stands a tower of rocks of 
primitive construction, designated the Philosopher's Tower, 
where Empedocles of Acragas is said to have lived while 
studying the volcano. But he was too dangerous because too 
wise an observer a philosopher as well as a scientist, who 
already knew that the world was composed of atoms and 
the monster, alarmed for its secret, one day effortlessly swal- 
lowed him. Brydone, always anxious to introduce extra- 
ordinary scientific theories into his book of travels, did not 
fail to draw conclusions from his ascent of Etna. The pure 
and refined air on mountain tops, so he believed, allows the 
mind and spirit to act with greater freedom. This fact, how- 
ever, did not prevent him from falling on the ice and sprain- 
ing his leg, so that he had to stumble his way back with the 
assistance of friends. A few years after Brydone's visit, an 
Englishman was lowered down the crater by cords and not 
surprisingly "immediately lost all his faculties," while in 
1805 a certain Monsieur de Foresta climbed down and, 
covered with fire and ashes exposed, to use his own expres- 
sion, to the discharges of a formidable artillery he had the 
courage to observe the sublime spectacle for three-quarters of 
an hour. Fifty years later Miss E. Lowe, as she records in 
that book of travel which almost lives up to its title Unpro- 
tected Females in Sicily, Calabria, and on the top of Mount 
Aetna removed her petticoats one by one as she climbed the 
volcano on foot. Her mother, who accompanied her, wore 
gutta-percha goloshes, but the snow got inside, and she does 
not recommend them. So, down the centuries, men and 
women have approached a trifle ridiculously, paid homage, 
and departed without solving the riddle of Etna. Modern 
explorations are less adventurous and colourful, and dis- 

ETNA 05 

coveries tend to be made not by personal observation, but at 
the desk, by correlating different groups of figures. Mean- 
while, the dragon, scornful as ever, stirs in uneasy sleep, sur- 
rounded by the wreckage of past eruptions, and at any 
moment may awaken in fire-breathing fury, to scatter more 
cities with a single sweep of its tail. 

All around its vast perimeter, here in lava which has not 
yet cooled, there in the streets of Catania and the cathedral 
apse, built out of the mountain's molten rock, are vestiges 
of previous eruptions, and among the most striking of such 
memorials are three large, pointed rocks lying in a row off- 
shore at Aci Castello, between Taormina and Catania, in the 
region imortalised by Verga. 

These rocks are called Scogli dei Ciclopi, because they are 
said to be the very ones thrown by Polyphemus and described 
in the Odyssey. In the Homeric poems the Cyclopes are a 
gigantic, insolent, and lawless race of shepherds, who lived in 
Sicily and devoured human beings. They had no political 
institutions and each lived with his wives and children in a 
cave on a mountain crest, reigning pver them with arbitrary 
power. Polyphemus, the principal among them, is described 
as having only one eye, in the centre of his forehead, a giant 
who was not like any man that lives by bread, but like a 
wooded peak of the towering hills, which stand out apart 
and alone from others. 

Homer describes how Odysseus, with a company of men, 
lands in Sicily and visits the cave of Polyphemus, only to be 
taken captive. Some of the party are eaten by the Cyclops, 
who makes it known that they will all sooner or later suffer 
the same fate. That night the prisoners cut an enormous club 
of olive wood, heat the point until it is glowing and thrust 
it into the Cyclops's single eye, while he is sleeping. Blinded 
and maddened with pain, the giant casts the club from him 
and calls for help, but Odysseus and his surviving com- 
panions hide and later make good their escape. Once on 
board their ship, and drawing off from shore, Odysseus 
shouts taunts at Polyphemus, who, in an attempt to sink 


the ship, breaks off massive rocks from the hill and hurls 
them in the direction of Odysseus's voice. However, his shots 
either fall short or overreach the boat, and Odysseus, with 
his companions, sails away safely to the Aeolian Isles. 

The rocks project out of the sea to this day, as Homer 
described them, just off shore, in a line pointing directly 
from the peak of Etna. They are of volcanic origin and are 
totally different in appearance from other off-shore rocks, 
being lofty, pointed and in one piece: they seem, in fact, to 
be precisely what Homer says they are, fragments of a moun- 
tain-top cast purposefully into the sea. Though Sicily was 
almost unknown in Homer's day, Greek sailors passing 
through the Straits of Messina must have noticed these 
peculiar-shaped rocks and described them to their friends 
when they returned home. 

The story of Polyphemus is clearly a description of Etna in 
eruption, the natural phenomena being personified, as is the 
custom of primitive people, and the personification being 
retained by the poet. Perhaps Homer knew that Sicily pos- 
sessed a volcano which periodically erupted; perhaps he con- 
sidered the drama of persons provided a better story. More 
likely than not he knew the scientific truth yet did not find 
that knowledge inconsistent with a poetical explanation. For 
the description of Polyphemus seems purposely ambiguous. 
The characteristics attributed to him lawlessness, living 
with his children (the minor cones) in a mountain cave, his 
single eye which is burnt out, and the fact that he is compared 
to a wooded peak of the towering hills are only those which 
could also apply to a volcano. Polyphemus is not merely a 
giant, he is a giant and also Mount Etna, just as for children 
a pile of blocks can be both blocks and castle at the same 
time, without any inconsistency. At the imaginative level the 
blocks are a castle; and that, for children, is more important 
than their real essence. 

Explanations are satisfactory accounts of the unknown in 
terms of the known. The story of Polyphemus provided 
Homer and his listeners with an account <jf what took place 

ETNA 157 

on Mount Etna, even down to such details as the purposeful 
line of off-shore rocks an account which satisfied people 
accustomed to view the world in terms of adventure stories, 
human conflict, battles and imprisonment. A technical 
description of the natural causes underlying a volcanic erup- 
tion, even had it been intelligible, would have proved unsatis- 
factory to men of that age, just as, at the present day, deter- 
minism might prove unacceptable to a novelist because he 
knows it would drain his works of all suspense. 

The Romans, materially more advanced, found one or two 
details of Homer's story unacceptable. They regarded the 
Cyclopes no longer as shepherds but as the assistants of 
Hephaestus, under whose direction they fashioned armour 
and ornaments for the gods and heroes, working with such 
energy that Sicily and the neighbouring islands resounded 
with their hammering. The story has been elaborated to 
provide an account which will better satisfy a people more 
familiar with the working of metal than were the men of 
Homer's day. Similarly, the modern inquirer, possessing a 
far more complete pattern of scientific knowledge, seeks an 
explanation for the line of volcanic rocks in terms of a sub- 
marine eruption of basalt. 

But to the searcher for Daedalus, the line of rocks has yet 
a fourth story to tell: they are a long-awaited pointer. If 
Polyphemus is really Mount Etna and his eye the main 
crater, then similar early stories and legends are likely to tell 
the truth, but not the literal truth. The legend transmitted 
by Diodorus may have to be interpreted as imaginatively as 
Homer's; and in that case to be searching for an actual 
golden honeycomb is perhaps as naive as to expect to find a 
one-eyed giant on Mount Etna. 

By what process is poetic truth melted down or transmuted 
into fact? How is it possible to know what Diodorus signi- 
fied in his account? In the case of the Polyphemus legend, 
certain facts, such as the, Cyclops's residence in Sicily, nar-^ 
rowed the range of possibilities; then someone with the myth 
in mind happened to watch Etna in eruption and, by a pro- 


cess exactly comparable to that whereby a poet finds a new 
and daring metaphor, saw the one in the other and identified 
the two. Applying that principle to the present myth, the 
obvious procedure will be to scrutinise Sicily for something 
which a poet might have imagined or objectified as a honey- 
comb fashioned of gold. If a tradition relating to such an 
object was handed down for 1300 years and considered by 
Diodorus to be worth recording, perhaps, like the myth of 
Polyphemus, it refers to a permanent not an accidental fea- 
ture, to something of wide significance. If so, the horizon is 
unlimited: all Sicily, with its multiple civilisations, will have 
to be sifted, starting with the earliest known remains. The 
quest is now no longer for a particular object: instead, the 
whole island will have to be scanned with the hope of dis- 
covering in something, whether person, natural feature, or 
work of art, the significance of Daedalus and his golden 



BUT now it is carnival time in the towns around Mount Etna, 
and in this week of hectic festivities before Ash Wednesday 
all work, whether it be olive-tending or a quest through time, 
must cease. Throughout Sicily the season is being celebrated, 
but nowhere more frantically than in the shadow of Etna, 
as though many of the towns remembered still the days of 
their destruction by fire and were intent at once on compen- 
sation and forestalling. Carnival time, the season when meat 
is put away not that many of the peasants or townsfolk can 
afford the price of meat but the word signifies a farewell to 
luxury in general. Lent is an austere dam extending for a 
ninth part of the year, on either side of which, at carnival 
time and Easter, the flood tides are released in a great pent- 
up, canalised surge of joy; not at the return of spring, for 
that suggests a gap between nature and the objective on- 
looker, but joy which is the seasonal flowering of people 
attuned to a natural rhythm. Carnival time, with its dress- 
ing up and dancing and singing, is the human equivalent of 
what takes place among flower, grass and bird: lacking all 
deliberation or self-consciousness, it springs from the vege- 
table, even the mineral soul. 

At Acireale on the slopes of Etna crowds of people from 
all the country around parade the main streets on Shrove 
Tuesday, throwing confetti at one another, blowing trum- 
pets, clowning, setting off fireworks, joking, laughing and 
shouting. Coloured lights decorate the fronts of houses and 
the piazzas are illuminated, while from the balconies crowds 
of spectators throw down paper streamers at the passing 
flood of participants. Here and there small spaces are formed 



in the crowd to allow a group of masked figures to dance or 
clown, but apart from these pools the stream of people flows 
continuously up and down the street and round the piazzas. 
When twilight falls the parade of carts which the crowds 
have come to watch moves into the town, down one long 
street, round the Piazza del Duomo and back by another 
route. As many as twenty of these fantastic cars form the 
procession, some pulled by horses or donkeys, others by small 
trucks, and they move very slowly, stopping every now and 
again either for admiration or because the crowd will not 
yield a passage. A few are quite small and simple: one shows 
a shark swallowing a small girl, another a loathsome green 
creature, half frog, half humpty-dumpty. But most are mas- 
sive constructions, built on a platform which runs on wheels, 
and carrying as many as twenty masked figures, some danc- 
ing or joking, others playing musical instruments. 

The first to roll slowly into sight shows the Three Mus- 
keteers, great, grotesque, drunken figures with swords askew, 
sitting astride Chianti bottles. Their faces are both awe- 
inspiring and ridiculously funny, monstrous and clownish, 
with long red noses and bulging eyes. Their dress like the 
figures themselves is made from papier mache, yet in the 
half-light there seems nothing artificial about either subject 
or presentation, for that undercurrent of music which comes 
from the carts themselves steals away all critical sense, so that 
the rational and absurd become equally acceptable. Next 
comes a children's playground, with huge overgrown boys 
and girls see-sawing and riding a roundabout: the animals' 
heads terrifyingly deformed: the whole tableau decorated in 
variegated tinsel of riotous colours. Those who are not riding 
throw streamers at the cars or jump upon the platform be- 
side the monsters to ridicule the musicians with actions and 
words. No one is a mere spectator: to see a pretty girl is to 
throw confetti at her, to n^eet a pompous old man is to steal 
for a moment his best hat and set it on an unsuspecting head, 
to come across a friend is to shower him with abuse. 

Now a new car rolls into sight. A pukka sahib in tropical 


kit is leaning back on cushions somewhere in tie jungle, stir- 
rounded by his four native wives, two playing the accordion, 
while one fans him with a palm leaf and another offers him 
a string of sausages. So debauched he looks, this fat, pink 
figure, and yet so comical, personifying the impulses under- 
lying the carnival, which reduce man to the level of an 
animal, but an animal whose every appetite is satisfied. Here 
is a second car expressing the same theme in a different 
way: its tide is Sogni Protbiti, and it is the largest car of all, 
the one that will eventually be awarded first prize. The back- 
ground is composed of minarets, in front of which is seated 
a fat sultan, surrounded by his harem of dancing girls: all 
these figures are huge papier mache constructions, vividly 
coloured in reds and oranges and greens. In the foreground 
stand real persons, no less gaudy, some dressed in Turkish 
costume, others wearing animal heads, rife with horns, others 
playing Oriental music on pipe and drum; one, perfectly 
expressive of the carnival's irrational principle, has no head 
at all in its place is a spinning-top. Still another car con- 
tinues the motif of sensuous abandon. An Indian snake- 
charmer, with bulging eyes that wobble grotesquely when he 
moves his head, is holding spell-bound six giant cobras, 
which sway back and forward to the sound of the magic 
pipe, keeping time with the vibrating eyes. Last of all comes 
the archetype: a vast assortment of horned and leering ani- 
mals, each degraded beneath its natural level, dancing to 
native African music, behind which, some twenty feet high, 
tower the head and torso of a man who is even more loath- 
some than any of the animals, though all are hideous, so that 
instead of rising above them, as his predominant position 
might suggest, he is reduced to a level far beneath the pigs 
and asses who grovel beneath him. He too keeps time to the 
wild music, not by dancing but by moving his eyebrows, 
mouth and ears in unison, and as these are all of enormous 
size, the effect is less burlesque than abomination. 

So the procession moves on, a parade of monsters to the 
rhythm of primitive music, down the long street into the 


Piazza del Duomo, turning in front of the cathedral and 
then retreating to the outskirts. Under the coloured fairy 
lights the giants are silhouetted against the towers and rose 
window of the high cathedral facade, making plain the essen- 
tial point about the whole carnival. It is true that they are 
primitive forces expressing all that is base and bestial in man, 
but they are not entirely out of control, they move under the 
shadow of the cathedral and tomorrow they will be exor- 
cised. Meanwhile, as the sight and sound of the monsters 
make their impression on the crowd, people become rowdier 
and more daring in their jokes. Water is squirted on all 
sides, smoke let loose and the line of people which before has 
glided along, now rushes like a torrent down the narrow 
streets. The lesson has been learned: man is a creature of 
earth, let him satisfy his earthly appetites, let him become a 
grotesque beast, with bulbous nose and bulging eyes: since 
the monsters are compelling, irresistible, it is better to yield 
now, at once. So they troop into the drinking shops where 
the dark red wine, the earth's blood, lies stored in its round, 
wooden kegs. Release it, they cry, and it is released, to fire 
their bodies and in a few minutes to give them final freedom 
from their inhibitions. Now they move out, masters of the 
world if not of themselves, and form a dance in the wide 
piazza, taking as partners strangers or friends, masked or 
unmasked, men or women, in a primitive alliance of gesture 
and step, keeping time to the emphatic music of a band. 
Those who wear fancy dress and masks give themselves up 
most freely to the moment: they have lost both inner and 
outer marks of their personality. They offer no resistance to 
the wine and pulsing music and to the gleam of their part- 
ner's white teeth as she smiles boldly across the dance. They 
have become princes and cowboys, toreadors and clowns, 
anything but citizens of Acireale. The town itself has be- 
come a prehistoric place, a sort of never-never land. 

Here is the Marquese di Geraci, a Spanish grandee, once 
viceroy of the island, with powdered periwig and golden 
coat, with white stockings and buckled shoes, so handsome, 


his skin like olive, his black eyes excited, his cheeks dimpled 
when he laughs. On the other side of the square, caught up 
in the dance, whirls a little Arab girl, with dark, curly hair 
falling on a mauve, long-skirted dress. They have glimpsed 
each other already and not by chance meet in the next dance. 
During two successive rounds they are partners, but they 
keep silence, for words are too rational a form of communi- 
cation. Their eyes and hands, warm from continual move- 
ment, tell all they need. With a nod of his head he beckons 
her now out of the anonymous crowd, and hand in hand they 
walk down one of the dark alleyways. After a few minutes 
they find what they want a cheap trattoria and the Mar- 
quis and the little Moorish girl sit down to eat pasta and meat 
sauce with a large bottle of red wine. But they neither re- 
move their masks nor utter a word for fear perhaps of 
recognising one another. The refined Marquis gulps his 
food, and the little girl drinks more wine than she has ever 
drunk before. The bottle is finished and replaced by another: 
soon this too is emptied. With a flourish the viceroy pays 
for their meal and they leave, refreshed and with still higher 
spirits, to join the dance. 

By this time the tempo of the music has become faster, 
while the older couples have grown tired and returned home, 
leaving the revelry more spirited than ever. The Marquis and 
the Moorish girl, partners now in all the different rounds, 
dance alone, oblivious of their surroundings and the rest of 
the company. They meet and mingle, unconscious that they 
are giving expression to that medley of blood, that inter- 
marriage of alien ways which characterises their country. 
Round and round, on and on, hour after hour they dance 
together until far too soon midnight is struck by the cathedral 
bell and the dancing comes to. an end. But the Marquis and 
the little Arab girl move to their own music, out through 
the alleyways into the fields, still without speaking, still 
without identity, out at last, to the earth, under the shadow 
of Etna, under the spring stars. Darkness falls on Acireale; 
the fairy lights have been extinguished; confetti and stream- 


ers cover the empty streets like a fall of snow, the music, the 
drunken shouts, the joking all are annihilated. 

At dawn, a grey, sunless dawn, the crowing cock cracks 
sleep, and the young dreamer who last night was sandalled 
and masked wakes to a bare narrow room. She rubs her 
eyes: where now is her Marquis, where the music of the 
carnival, where the spell she thought would last a lifetime? 
Again the cathedral bell tolls, but now with a different note. 
She jumps up from bed and runs to the window: already old 
women are making for the church door along the littered 
streets. Ash Wednesday she had forgotten. She must go 
out and receive the ashes. As she dons her black clothes, she 
sees her pretty fancy dress crumpled on the floor out of 
place now, a memory. She joins the congregation in the bare 
stone cathedral and goes up with the others to be marked 
with the burnt palms. On this child's curls the little boy 
would boast later that he had received more than his friends; 
on this old woman's head dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Be- 
side them kneels the carnival girl: Memento, homo, quia 
fulvis e$, et in pulverem reverteris. The carnival had ended; 
after the fire only the ashes remained; the dark earth spirits, 
last night's monsters, had returned to the soil, to the ashen 
soil of Etna, and with them her passion and its dusty 
memory. The grotesque devils were exorcised: the people of 
Acireale and the little Arab girl were again at peace with 
themselves and with the earth. 


The Sicilians 

THE pattern of daily life is once more resumed, in Acireale 
as in all the other towns of Sicily. Many of the inhabitants 
here are petty landowners, with small-holdings high up 
above the town worked not by themselves but by poorly paid 
serfs. At dawn, here as in every centre across the island, the 
labourers set off on their mules and donkeys for the moun- 
tain slopes, where they spend their day hoeing beans- and 
peas, harvesting oranges or olives, mowing hay with a scythe 
or reaping corn. 

Meanwhile the petty landowner occupies himself not with 
improving methods or even with extending his holding, but 
with the far more pressing business of enjoying life, of talk- 
ing and arguing, of acting the man of leisure among leisured 
friends. In these small Sicilian towns leisure is attested 
by a man's pyjamas: the longer he wears them in the morn- 
ing, the higher his status. That the significance is purely 
symbolic is shown by the fact that the jacket may just as 
well be worn over ordinary trousers, or that in the afternoon 
a man may exchange his shirt for the pyjama top before 
starting to read his paper. 

When the sun climbs higher, he goes out to one of the 
mirrored saloni, where company provides him with the 
opportunity of a long wait and many-sided conversation be- 
fore his turn comes to be shaved. This is followed by coffee 
in tiny cups and more talk in torrents until the hour strikes 
for the mid-day meal and sleep. In the late afternoon, if 
there is no wedding or funeral to provide diversion, he sets 
himself to business, that is to say, enters a further stage of 
some barter or transaction which will last several weeks be- 


fore final agreement is reached. As evening comes down, 
the day's work being finished both for master and servant, 
he watches the labourers plod slowly back to town, their 
beasts so heavily laden on either side with produce that each 
forms a trinity. Tomorrow smallholder and serf will repeat 
the performance, with minor variations. 

This way of life has been variously attributed to the 
climate, to malnutrition, or to innate carelessness, but none 
of these interpretations bears scrutiny. Vigour and self- 
development are found among the tribes of tropical Africa, 
and in any case the weather in Sicily for three-quarters of the 
year is no hotter than in Southern France or the deep South 
of the United States. As for the second alternative, if the 
average working woman can continue feeding her child at 
the breast for as long as fifteen months after birth, there can 
be little cause for speaking of dietary deficiency. Further- 
more, that carelessness is not a natural Sicilian failing is 
proved by the attention lavished on personal apparance and 
clothes, by the methodical care given to children. No, the 
true explanation of the Sicilian attitude of dolce jar niente 
lies deeper than any of these interpretations in a personal 
choice of one particular way of life in preference to any 
other. The root assumption is that life itself is more valuable 
than any end to which it can serve as a means. The journey 
is more important than the destination, and a journey with- 
out any destination is best of all, for then one can look out of 
the window without interruption, eat caramels and continue 
talking heedless of time or space. To want to arrive in 
general, and, even more, to want to reach a particular desti- 
nation, would already entail incompleteness and dissatisfaction 
a turning away from the present moment. To take action in 
order to attain a nearby goal is a -fortiori undesirable. Since the 
present moment is of paramount importance, it can on no 
account be bartered for no matter how many golden hours 
in the future. The future is uncertain the history of Sicily, 
a series of wars, eruptions and earthquakes, has proved it so 
and even unreal, an abstract conception which in Sicilian 


scales can never outweigh the passing hour, however petty, 
drab, and meaningless that may appear to the impartial ob- 
server. Lack of purpose in life is itself exalted into a kind of 
purpose, and lack of action into a mode of action. Just as in 
countries where people are generally ambitious and bent on 
self-advancement, an obstacle in their path illness or any 
other factor which disturbs or impedes their work is con- 
sidered catastrophic, in Sicily, the reverse is true, so that all 
useful employment which detracts from watching the 
pageant of life is something to be avoided, while on the other 
hand all that contributes to rest and conversation is diligently 
fostered and stimulated by every possible means. 

In the towns only men parade: the women are almost in- 
variably at home attending to their children. Where physical 
charms are highly prized, it is natural that the women, as 
soon as child-bearing has spoiled their early prettiness, should 
lose their attraction for their husbands. It is the men who 
retain their looks for a much longer period, and match them 
with elegant clothes : in this country the cock birds sport the 
finer plumage and are admired accordingly. Whereas the 
women are dressed plainly and soberly, young men and old 
vie to keep up with the fashion, careless of all expense. 

Since women in Sicily outnumber men by a considerable 
margin, the male has become the more valued of the sexes. 
He is at a premium and is able to take advantage of this fact 
on every occasion. Thus the woman is continually occupied 
in her house during the day, looking after her children^ 
making order in the single family room, cooking and wash- 
ing. Apart from the agricultural labourers, none of the men 
does an equivalent amount of work. Since self-advancement 
and ambition are not Sicilian characteristics, the man's aim 
in life is to perform the least possible amount of labour com- 
mensurate with a bare subsistence level. Moreover, since 
wives are too occupied to indulge in endless talk, the men 
flock together: they pass most of the day conversing in the 
streets, looking at newspapers and illustrated magazines, dis- 
cussing politics, watching the girls pass by. Their faces, ex- 


pressive of each nuance of emotion without check or disguise, 
are as variable as the waters of a nciill-stream. Yet, five cen- 
turies ago, a great painter caught once and for all time this 
multiple character of the Sicilian face. 

The portrait of an unknown man by Antonello da Messina 
is a late work, painted when the artist was forty. In tech- 
nique it shows the influence of Van Eyck and Fouquet, but 
apart from its intrinsic merit as a work of art it is profoundly 
interesting because it reveals how little the Sicilian physiog- 
nomy has changed in the five hundred years since the por- 
trait was painted. Apart from an increase of Spanish blood, 
chiefly among the nobles, all the main racial characteristics 
had been assimilated and fused in Antonello's time, and his 
picture might represent any one of countless Sicilians living 
today. The head and top of the breast are shown from three- 
quarters, in great detail, against a dark background. Low 
over his forehead the man is wearing a black, brimless hat, 
beneath which, at the iiape, can just be distinguished a mass 
of dark, curly hair. The face is fat, with a two days' beard, and 
the neck thick; small, very alert dark eyes are looking cross- 
ways at the spectator. The eyelids fall low over the eyes, the 
sides of which are wrinkled, and wrinkles, too, mark the 
corners of the mouth, which is wide and thick-lipped. The 
one ear which is visible is unusually small, with a suggestion 
of deformity, but since it lies in deep shadow this cannot be 
verified. The rather thick nose is straight and rounded at 
the end. The man is wearing black clothes turned back at 
the neck to reveal a white lining and white shirt, immacu- 
lately clean. He is a Sicilian countryman, a peasant: that 
much is evident, but his character Antonello has declined 
immediately to reveal. 

The artist's most brilliant stroke has been almost entirely 
to hide the brow under the dark hat, which is indistinguish- 
able from the background, thus centring attention on eyes, 
nose and mouth. But this barbarously low brow, which robs 
the *head of intelligence, appears contradicted by the sharp 
expression of the eyes, which, peering obliquely, reveal a 


malicious glint. The nose and mouth reaffirm coarseness and 
stupidity, but the smiling lips once again betray a contradic- 
tion, for they lack the eyes' purposeful intent. This subtle 
balancing of opposites constitutes Antonello's mastery: the 
quality which gives his paintings a perennial interest. No 
matter how familiar one is with his portraits, they continually 
surprise by this unresolved complexity. The subtlety of his 
brushwork, which holds back essential details in the shade, 
almost out of sight, is the technical counterpart of that psy- 
chological insight which uncovers the conflicting elements in 
a peasant's face, sensuousness and simplicity, laughter and 
robust self-interest. To these he has added another typically 
Sicilian trait: the subject seems to be in communication with 
at least one other person. He is laughing at someone else's 
joke, and in turn preparing his own: one can imagine the 
hands gesticulating, or clasping a friend's shoulders. 

This suggestion of others in a portrait of a single man 
shows how well Antonello understood the essential character 
of his countrymen. For the basic Sicilian unit is not the indi- 
vidual but the group, and for this reason all life is public 
life. Everything that is, is known, and everything that is 
known is communicated, immediately and in^its entirety, by 
word of mouth and gesture to the family and the community 
as a whole. Not only is the Sicilian always in company; he 
is also physically linked to the other members of his group, 
as though he formed one of a party of mountaineers, for 
whom isolation spelt disaster. Solitude is emptiness, stagna- 
tion; only in the constantly changing stream of human inter- 
course are reality and enjoyment to be found. If there is no 
news to impart, provoke an argument or start a scuffle; if 
there are no friends to be found, address a stranger; if there 
is not even a stranger, the only recourse is to sleep. Just as 
there is no clearly defined division between work and play, 
between the hours of employment and leisure, so that all 
action seems to glide slowly and agreeably along on an under- 
current of amusement, in the same way there is no marked 
division between the hours of sleep and waking. During the 


hot months, night is the only tolerable period, and the laugh- 
ter, singing and general commotion, checked by the heat of 
the day, finds expression under the stars, while much of the 
afternoon is spent in sleep. Thus, at three o'clock in the 
morning it is natural for a Sicilian confectioner to discover 
that his caramels are the most succulent in the world and 
equally natural for him to shout this news at the pitch of his 
voice all round the town. Sleep, too, is taken in short 
snatches, like gulps of water when the sun is intolerably hot 
in doorways, on an empty cart, wherever a little shade 
suggests oblivion. More often, sitting on benches or on the 
pavement in the sun, men relapse into a form of semi- 
drowsiness, neither sleep nor waking, in which life can be 
enjoyed quite passively and coloured with dreams. Certainly 
there is no appreciable difference between the rhythms of 
Sicilian night and day. All through the hours of darkness 
the animated conversation continues, at an even intenser rate 
as though breeding by night; carts transfer their loads; ven- 
dors prepare their wares for early morning; and the young 
men who are in love break into song. The angelus which 
strikes at dawn from the cathedral towers is like the sound- 
ing of eight bells on board ship a division of a continuous 
cycle rather than the beginning of an absolutely new period 
of time. 

Perhaps as an expression of their communal nature, all 
Sicilians are, to a greater or lesser extent, traders, whose chief 
principle is that the price of goods is not an objective, absolute 
quality, but a variable figure imposed according to mood, 
need, weather, and other circumstances. Here man is still 
master of the goods he offers for sale : he is not merely a passive 
link in an exchange of articles each with a price predeter- 
mined by officials. The way is left open both for generosity 
and rapacity. The vendor is always able to believe he posses- 
ses the former virtue, for the opening price he demands is 
invariably fantastic a daydreamer's price, far higher than 
the object is worth and very often two or three times its 
actual value. By thus showing how exceedingly he treasures 


his goods, he appears generous in offering them for sale at 
all, and even more open-handed in selling them, as he 
always does, at a price far below the first he quoted. But this 
is not the only pleasure which a vendor enjoys during a trans- 
action. The actual dispute over prices is an occasion for dis- 
playing that rhetoric and repertoire of facial expressions and 
gestures in which all Sicilians delight, a sign language which 
an increasing complexity of dialects consequent upon foreign 
invasion may originally have necessitated. The salesman 
becomes the leading actor in his own play, his shop a theatre, 
the passers-by an appreciative audience. Moreover, the long 
duration of each particular bargain is able to compensate for 
the fact that only a few customers present themselves in the 
course of a day: they must therefore be played carefully and 
subtly to provide the greatest amount of amusement com- 
mensurate with suitable profit. 

The Sicilian sense of humour is best described as Aristo- 
phanic, earthy and bordering on the gross. It is comedy of 
persons and situations, never of manners or wit. Anxiety and 
pomposity in fact almost any form of seriousness are its 
favourite targets, but it treats them spontaneously and with- 
out venom. It is the precise opposite of that sudden spas- 
modic preoccupation with the grotesque and monstrous 
which characterises countries where the people are not 
naturally gay. In Sicily laughter is never silent; night and 
day it bubbles up like a spring, providing an undercurrent of 
rippling sound which softens and transmutes all hostile ele- 
ments. The grand no less than the mean, exceptional beauty 
as well as exceptional ugliness, sanctity and immorality, liber- 
ality and thieving, and above all an unsmiling face these, 
because they represent a challenge to society, are laughter's 

The most exact definition of the structure of Sicilian society 
would be that it constitutes a benevolent paedocracy : a society 
in which children hold the dominant power. They are the 
final cause of almost everything; towards them most actions 
tend; being most loved, they are most powerful. No single 


characteristic of the people is more striking than their affec 
tion for children. It extends to all classes, to both sexes anc 
to people of every age. Nor is it merely a family affair: al 
children, no matter whose, receive fervent and immediat 
tenderness as an inalienable right. A wealthy and respectabl 
man, should he see a woman in the street carrying a bab 
insufficiently wrapped, will at once, as a matter of course 
go up to her and himself put matters right. If a baby start 
to cry, it is the duty of everyone within sound to rally t 
amuse it. If strangers with a child enter a house, it is th 
child who receives the first welcome and attention. Bv 
within the family this affection naturally assumes its moj 
intense form. A mother spends every moment of the day i 
taking care of her children. She continues to feed her bab 
at the breast for well over a year, although meanwhile st 
herself is eating little more than bread, pasta, fruit, an 
cheese. As it grows older, she is continually amusing i 
never on any account leaving it alone for a moment, whi 
the care lavished on its clothes is in inverse proportion to th; 
spent on her own wardrobe. Babies and children, even i 
comparatively poor homes, are well washed and dressed i 
neat, clean clothes, while their parents may be wearir 
patched and repatched rags. 

These are the material signs of great affection, which : 
the intangibles of domestic life becomes even more eviden 
In the home it is neither the mother nor the father who 
the dominant figure, but the children, not because tl 
parents feel a sense of duty towards them or wish purpose 
to sacrifice themselves for the next generation, but becau 
children are wholeheartedly loved in and for themselvc 
They are loved for their innocence, their gaiety, their hel 
lessness, but most of all for their pretty faces. In a count 
where life is soon worn out, where the period of flowering 
pathetically short, youth and beauty are prized above ; 
other goods. Women begin to lose their beauty at the a 
of twenty-two or three and by the time they are thirty, havL 
given birth to perhaps seven children, are so occupied wi 


their family that they have no time to care for their appear- 
ance. Thus children usurp the position of honour accorded 
to beauty, which in other countries is generally occupied by 
women. They receive the tributes and affection which a 
pretty smile always evokes, and in a correspondingly greater 
degree as beauty is seen to be fleeting. As for the children's 
gaiety, it provides the chief amusement within the family. 
Whenever parents stay home together, a relatively rare 
event, it is usually in order to play with the children. The 
amusement extends to both sides, for if the chief purpose is 
to make the child happy, success sets the adults laughing. 
It is never clear who precisely plays the part of the toy, nor is 
the father any less adept at fondling and amusing than the 
mother. The single room which constitutes the home is 
before all else a nursery, where the adults kneel in adoration. 
The effect of all this attention on the children themselves 
is not noticeably bad. Since they are not nervous by nature, 
they develop without precocity or complexes, and since they 
have no toys, since limited space restricts their freedom, and 
because of the large families, there is no danger that they 
grow spoiled. The admiration they receive as children, how- 
ever, is the cause of that supreme self-confidence which marks 
the Sicilians, a quality which often tends to degenerate into 
self-complacency. This same admiration of children is per- 
haps also responsible for the great respect accorded to inno- 
cence and purity, the distinctive virtues of childhood, and 
for that satisfaction with a handsome appearance and new 
clothes felt by so many Sicilian men. As for the women, their 
inbred love of children is satisfied in child-bearing. In a 
country so prodigal of sunshine and where the standard of 
living is so low, the sacrifice involved in providing for a child 
is not very great, and is more than compensated for by the 
joy it brings the parents and relatives. If there are already 
older children in the family, these adopt the new child, again 
not out of duty but because they enjoy it. This co-operation 
is absolutely necessary in a country where it is not unusual 
for a mother to have to look after a family of as many as 


fourteen or fifteen. No sight is more characteristic or more 
engaging than that of a very small boy caring for his younger 
brother, amusing him when he is cross and teaching him first 
not to talk but to gesticulate. 

The consequences of such large families are overpopula- 
tion within the island and widespread emigration, chiefly to 
South America, the United States and Australia. One mem- 
ber of a family will save sufficient money for his passage and, 
once arrived in the new country, will begin to put aside his 
earnings, so that within a few years he is able to bring his 
family from Sicily to join him. The effect of overcrowding 
on the island itself is that schools are swamped, educational 
progress hampered and primitive habits perpetuated. Shop- 
keepers even in the large towns can count only with difficulty 
and make mistakes in the simplest sums. Reading is a labour 
seldom indulged in, and when unavoidable is accomplished 
slowly, the words being articulated one by one. Not that the 
people are naturally dull or stupid : on the contrary, they are 
sharp and observant and in many ways clever, but it is alto- 
gether an outward cleverness, an astuteness of perception 
rather than an intellectual quality. It is part of their pattern 
of life, which treats existence, the mere fact of existence, as 
an end in itself. The physical enjoyment of life requires not 
great intelligence but quick sensations and to this end an 
alert response is stimulated by continual companionship and 
incessant talking. Only the shepherds in Sicily are ever 
alone: the rest of the population are always in company, 
usually parading the streets or, since the houses are inade- 
quate, sitting at a caffe. It is a civic life, a life of talk and 
laughter which always takes place out of doors, and this 
fact is itself a reflection of the external and extrovert quality of 
the people. People in the streets, people continually passing, 
people talking and laughing and joking this is the life of a 
Sicilian small town. In a country where comparatively little 
is actually achieved, where action is minimal, a flood of con- 
versation acts to redress the balance. It is a play in which 
all the countless characters talk simultaneously and intermin- 


ably, where the lighting is at full blaze against the most 
beautiful back-drop imaginable, and where nothing ever 

Nowhere is this essential inactivity more clearly reflected 
than in the number of public holidays in Sicily. The island 
naturally observes all the Italian national holidays, which are 
numerous, and the great feasts of the Church, which are 
even more numerous. In addition, the name-days of all local 
saints are counted as days of rest, together with any other 
local historical incident worthy of commemoration. All these 
are regular annual fcstc, which can be counted upon and 
anticipated. But during the year the number may be con- 
siderably increased by local decree* A civic success or disas- 
ter will result in cessation of work, either as a holiday or as 
part of the lutto cittadinoi and civic elections of whatever 
nature also bring the town to a standstill. Such are the public 
fcste\ within the family there are naturally additional holi- 
days to celebrate births and weddings, and days of rest to 
honour the dead, so that at any given moment during the year 
it is likely either that the whole town or at least a considerable 
part of it is observing a holiday. In this way, for all classes 
of society, always excluding the paid agricultural labourers, 
who are obliged to work unceasingly, inactivity is if not sanc- 
tified, at least regularised. 


Carts and Puppets 

EVERY country excels in a traditional native craft, which 
occasionally rises to the level of a fine art. Not all of these 
can be related to the surroundings or temperament of the 
people. Thus, it is not easy to see why the women of 
Brittany rather than of any other country should make such 
delicate lace, nor why the Fair Islanders should excel at knit- 
ting multi-coloured wools. But the decorated carts of Sicily 
obviously reflect the temperament and tastes of the people. 
These carts, which range in size from small hand-carts to 
horse-drawn wagons, are two-wheeled vehicles with project- 
ing shafts, and straight, low sides and back. Like most 
native tools and primitive machines which have been elabo- 
rated in the course of centuries, they are of excellent technical 
design and construction, the weight being fairly distributed 
over the two wheels, so that the man, donkey, or horse is 
free for hauling. The carts vary greatly in the extent of their 
decoration, but the most elaborate have carvings on wheels, 
shafts, sides, front and back, and are painted all over in 
crude colours traditional and unvarying: red, yellow, blue, 
and green to symbolise Sicily's oranges, sun, sea, and grass. 

In cramped outdoor workshops craftsmen carve the back 
panels of these carts, talking together all the while, interrupt- 
ing their own carving and others' in order to joke and play. 
The piece of wood for the back panel measures three foot by 
one and is two inches thick. Here on this plank a young man 
of twenty-six, acknowledged as one of the finest craftsmen in 
the whole island, is carving a battle scene, comprising five 
knights in armour, four horses and in the background a 
medieval fortress. These particular figures are of exceptional 


fineness and mobility; the horses are strong enough for their 
riders and yet gracefully executed; the bridles are decorated; 
the scene, a balanced and ordered whole, leaps to life from 
the craftsman's glancing blade. This is not always the case, 
and often the coarse flourishes and bloodshed which dis- 
tinguish end-panels cover up a lack of art. One of these back 
sections requires two days to carve, and is sold at a price 
which ensures the craftsman a very modest livelihood but 
which is nevertheless far in excess of the mere cost of the 
wood. Why is it then that in this poor island the ordinary 
trader and small farmer continue to buy comparatively ex- 
pensive carved and painted carts? Tradition provides an 
answer, though an unsatisfactory one: from time im- 
memorial it has always been the dream of a small trader to 
possess a beautiful cart, and a man's status and taste are to 
some extent gauged by the decorations on his vehicle. But, 
at a deeper level, it is their intricate carving and flamboyant 
colours which have always appealed to Sicilian pride. 

During carnival time competitions and parades are held to 
foster this tradition, the horses wearing cocked plumes, the 
carts themselves newly painted and decked with flowers. 
The scenes painted on either the carved or uncarved panels 
are taken from French and Sicilian history. In many cases 
they depict Crusaders battling with Saracens or the story of 
the Sicilian Vespers, and all are distinguished by violent 
action, gesticulation and bloodshed. These the owner can 
appreciate, for he is generally not conversant with the his- 
torical incidents depicted on his cart; it is the builders, carvers, 
and painters who hand on the historical episodes from father 
to son, history in the process dissolving into legend. 

Suddenly the carved figures in the panel become alive, 
move out of their frames and begin battling in earnest. They 
lunge and parry to the death, their armour gleaming in the 
sunlight. They call for help and receive it; they run to the 
rescue of outnumbered companions. The most vital of all 
battles is being fought for the defence of Christendom against 
the heathen. Such is the immediate impression upon a visitor 


to one of the few remaining marionette theatres of Sicily. In 
shape and colour, in dress and weapons these knights, none 
more than three feet in height, are identical with the figures 
on the cart. In fact, the theatre represents the same historical 
incidents as many of the carvings: the French knights 
fighting to save Christianity from the Saracen, culminating in 
the battle of Roncesvalles. 

The puppet plays go back to a knightly epic, the Reali di 
Francia, which stems not directly from the Chansons dc 
Geste but from an intermediate group of Franco-Italian 
poems. The whole complicated cycle, which takes thirteen 
months to present, has something of the quality of the 
Homeric poems, and the parallel with Greek epic and drama 
is strengthened by the fact that every member of the audi- 
ence knows the details of the whole cycle and will correct 
with great indignation any departure in dress, gesture or inci- 
dent from the traditional story. Although one would not be- 
lieve it to look at the spectators dockers and road labourers 
and children of the poorest classes this fact is confirmed by 
the silence in which they watch the play, attentive to every 
word and action. The theatre itself is of appropriate size: no 
more than a large room divided into two sections by an arch- 
way. A bicycle hangs on the wall between posters showing 
scenes from some of the plays, and plain benches give seating 
accommodation for some sixty people. During the day the 
room simply forms part of a private house and is used for 
domestic purposes. The stage itself is of necessity very small, 
allowing the masters to pass across their puppets from one 
side to the other without being seen, but the curtain is as 
grandly and pompously decorated as that of any full-scale 
theatre, with paintings of battling Crusaders. Beside it chil- 
dren are lounging and playing die fool with the intimacy 
and informality of young bloods at an Elizabethan inn-yard. 

Now the tinkling pia^o which has been playing continu- 
ously falls silent and the curtain rises to show a backcloth of 
a mill in rolling country, and the rowdy talk ceases at once. 
The first puppet enters it is Orlando, hero of the story to 


deliver Ms virtuous lines; everything about him proclaims a 
lordly miniature. His chief characteristic is his armour, the 
beaten metal shining for all the world like silver. Visor, hel- 
met, shield, breastplate, gauntlets, and greaves are meticu- 
lously and elaborately worked. Plumes on the helmet, skirt 
round the thighs and the faces themselves distinguish the 
characters one from another: all these parts are interchange- 
able so that with only a few coats of armour the innumerable 
personages of the cycle can be presented, since all the Chris- 
tian knights appear dressed for battle. The Saracens on the 
other hand wear no such glorious accoutrements they are 
simply rag dolls with turbans : no love has been put into their 
construction and curiously, while the knights are quite realis- 
tic, the Turks, seen from side view, are as thin as the boy in 
Struwwdpeter who would not eat his porridge. Their round 
faces with wide, grinning mouths are depicted in the same 
fashion and with the same primitive feeling of hate as the 
Gorgon's head on the earliest Selinus metope. Since realism 
is not an adequate style for depicting monsters, the puppet- 
master has turned to expressionism. But Orlando- is declaim- 
ing his lines and the spectator must pay attention. 

He sets the scene in a long monologue, and although he is 
alone on the stage for some time there is no lack of action, 
for he gesticulates appropriately at every phrase, and his ar- 
mour repeats the expression in its own sonorous way. Indeed, 
though they derive from French history, these knights move 
in the tradition of Italian grand opera. Now three comrades- 
in-arms enter to join Orlando, boasting of their accomplish- 
ments and fighting verbally their future battles. Apprised of 
the large numbers of the latest Saracen army, and of the 
danger the Christians are in, their bravado disappears and 
they shrink back in fear. Is there no way of avoiding battle, 
they ask: traitors, they must die on the spot, and Orlando 
proceeds to fight and kill them all in turn. These contests, 
which display the puppet-masters' skill, are conducted with 
the greatest possible shedding of blood, and form as it were 
the purple passages which the dialogue merely serves to link 


together. Only the basic ideas of the speeches are set, so 
that within a certain framework the puppet-masters can im- 
provise. Now the Saracens launch a sudden attack and when 
all appears lost Orlando comes to the rescue, takes on in- 
numerable infidels single-handed, slays them all "Con un 
colpo della mia spada faccio saltare la testa a cento paladini ! " 
he cries and saves the day. 

The scenes all have this in common: they are short, concise 
and to the point, full of action, with the outcome continually 
in the balance. It is not difficult to see why the audience 
applauds this mixture of declamation and courage. The poor 
dockers and children are brought up in a living tradition of 
ardent Christianity and they know what glory attaches to 
martyrdom. As they watch the miniature knights battling, 
they themselves become French warriors dying to save 
Christendom from the Turk. It is glorious to shed blood in 
a noble cause and easier than living their faith through long 
hours of drudgery. It is a joy to kill Saracens on the battle- 
fields of France, it is a joy to swagger and swashbuckle if 
they had been fortunate enough to live in another age, in 
another place, who knows but they too might have fought 
and won glory? So they troop to the little theatre, night after 
night, to live another, more adventurous life, and die an- 
other, less pitiful death. The proprietor has his own particu- 
lar clientele who prefer the puppet plays to the cinema, and 
he claims that the tradition will persist. But the fact remains 
that a few years ago in Sicily there were three times as many 
theatres as there are today: the cinema has proved too power- 
ful a rival. It is a commonplace to accept as a regrettable fact 
that such local traditions will sooner or later yield before the 
delectations of mass entertainment. Yet every night in this 
little theatre it seems possible that the spirit of the crusaders 
may yet gain its way over the shoddy, the base, and the 

Wood-carving and modelling in metal in these two 
specifically Sicilian crafts is it too fanciful to see a survival of 
Daedalus' teaching? Their treatment of medieval subjects 


is no proof that the tradition of craftsmanship does not go 
back much further, perhaps to prehistoric times: on the con- 
trary, the persistence of those subjects points to a material as 
well as thematic continuity. Pindar, in a fragment, speaks 
of the deftly-wrought donkey-cart as being typical of Sicily: 
therefore one at least of the crafts flourished as early as the 
fifth century before Christ. 

Many of the authors who describe Daedalus' work mention 
that he used wood and metal for his statues, not stone. From 
surviving archaic statuary this is exactly what one would 
expect of the earliest of all artists, for such materials are 
easier than stone to fashion and can be modelled with primi- 
tive tools. The skill and elaboration with which the Sicilians 
work them are more than mere peasant craftsmanship and 
suggest, at some stage or other, the teaching of a master. 
Surely it is more than a coincidence that the only two native 
crafts in Sicily which are known to have persisted for cen- 
turies are precisely those for which Daedalus was famed and 
which he is said to have introduced to the island. 

If a consideration of the donkey-carts and puppets tends to 
substantiate Diodorus's story, it also brings out the continuity 
of Sicilian history, a characteristic confirmed by other evi- 
dence, such as the carnival processions and little customs of 
everyday life. Again and again the externals of Sicilian his- 
tory take the same pattern of invasion, conquest, and revolu- 
tion, while the day-to-day life, also, in whatever century, 
manifests the same traditions and the same skills. A theme 
from a Greek vase is enacted in the market place today; a 
prehistoric myth finds expression in a contemporary carnival 
mask; and Charlemagne's victory is acted out by Daedalean 
puppets. It would seem that here, at the cross-roads of the 
Mediterranean, the meeting-place of Africa and Europe, the 
central point of much of European history, there is a perma- 
nence and continuity as at the still centre of a turning wheel. 
Nothing in this country is ever quite forgotten: the all- 
pervasive sun allows no object," least of all one of beauty, to 
become obscured. If for a while it should be lost or destroyed, 


during a later age it will rise phoenix-like in a blaze of glory. 
In an island of continual renewal and elaboration of age-old 
themes, there is every likelihood that what Diodorus called 
the golden honeycomb of Daedalus, which in his time 
had endured for 1300 years, survives to the present day. Its 
form may be transposed, its structure modified according to 
changing patterns, but so important and sacred an element 
can hardly have disappeared from the life-stream of this con- 
servative people. 


The Aeolian Isles 

CARNIVAL time is over: Lent has begun. The people who 
crowded round the volcano to celebrate the return of spring 
have shown in their own rites a renewal of an age-old pattern. 
Already the rocks off Aci Castello have suggested that 
Diodorus's story must be broadly interpreted, and that all 
Sicily must be scanned for the true correlative of the honey- 
comb. The Sicilians themselves are proof that the search will 
not be a vain one, but at what point must it begin ? Odysseus, 
after his encounter with the Cyclops, sailed to the Aeolian 
Isles, and there are two good reasons for following him there. 

In the first place, though falling under Sicilian jurisdic- 
tion and geographically closely related to the large island, 
they stand apart; like a group of artists, they belong yet do 
not belong to the main body. As such, they may afford, by 
contrast and aloofness, a good vantage-point for assessing the 
specific qualities of Sicily and its people. Secondly, the 
Aeolian Islands are all but barren. In Roman times, when 
Cicero accused Verres, the governor of Sicily, of having exten- 
ded his crushing rapacity even to these meagre rocks, he goes 
so far as to describe them by the adjective jejunus, which means 
fasting. They would be an appropriate destination for Lent. 

Milazzo, port for the Aeolian Islands : a point of departure, 
a series of arbitrary impressions: a small provincial town, 
centre of the wine-growing industry of the province of Mes- 
sina, and itself an island like the Aeolians until the sea, piling 
up alluvial deposits from neighbouring rivers, gave it in 
adoption to Sicily, a town which witnessed two battles which 
changed the course of the island's history: the first Roman 
victory by sea over the Carthaginians proof that after couutr 



less unsuccessful attempts the masters of land warfare had 
learned how to build and fight from ships; and Garibaldi's 
final defeat of the Bourbon troops in Sicily. But the town 
which guards the tenuous peninsula has never been impor- 
tant in its own right: it has always been and always will be 
a stage in a journey. For this reason the impression the travel- 
ler forms of it is necessarily ephemeral, even superficial and 
probably arbitrary; yet the nature of the place forbids any 
other form of analysis. One is left therefore with broken 
images: the difficulty of controlling undisciplined crowds; 
erection of barriers; threat of sacrilege; quays lined with 
innumerable barrels of wine destined for England., a drunk- 
ard's dream; flowers in the public garden filched overnight; 
clumsiness with machines; heavy jowled faces; difficulty in 
manipulating long words; startling incidence of statues to 
notable local men; preoccupation with newspaper advertise- 
ments; large babies with thick hair; curious stale smells^ 
walls painted in thick, scrawling letters with misspelt politi- 
cal slogans; men's reverence for fine clothes and illustrated 
papers; people who, misjudging distance, knock into one 
another in the street; controlling voices from Rome on the 
radio, insistent but unheard; difficulty of organising civic 
functions; failure of electricity; the struggle against apathy 
gradually being lost; lack of tribal taboos; multiplicity of 
powerless officials clerks and counter-clerks; shallow foun- 
dations; shifting, unsettled population; dust. 

After a few hours of these urban impressions, the sur- 
rounding sea, inky under a cloudy sky, seems to possess a 
welcome cleanness, even a solidity, that are lacking on the 
promontory, and the little ship an enterprise and vigour as 
she plies her daily voyage to the Aeolian Islands. Land is 
never out of sight on the twenty-mile crossing: Vulcano, the 
most southerly of the islands, even on a dull day is visible 
from Sicily; and to starboard Panaria and Stromboli, erupt- 
ing day and night at ten-minute intervals, rise sheer out of 
the sea like two floating mountains dark-coloured icebergs 
in warm waters, whales generated from the sea-bed. The 


Islands indeed are more akin to sea than land : from the sea 
they were born in a titanic explosion of volcanic activity, 
attempts at producing real earth, miscarriages constituted of 
strange hybrid rocks, discontented and neurotic: lava, pumice 
and obsidian. Like other ill-adapted survivals, like the duck- 
billed platypus, they continue to exist by dint of an unbroken 
struggle. They manage to hold themselves above water; 
puny,, shaggy dwarfs in a world of giants, afflicted with hot 
blood and strange weaknesses, liable at any moment to 
destroy themselves in flame. 

If the land of Sicily is a garden of Eden, the Aeolian 
Islands are a place of exile after the Fall, where man must 
labour all day for food in the sweat of his brow: rocky moun- 
tains where a few scattered olives are almost the sole trees, 
birds scarce and wild flowers almost unknown. Two of the 
islands, a modern version of Sodom and Gomorrah, are con- 
tinually consumed by fire, and all have that ashen-coloured 
soil which betrays volcanic activity. Their name, which is 
very ancient, derives from that Aeolus who, according to 
Homer, was controller of the winds and ruler of the floating 
island of Aeolia. He entertains Odysseus, gives him a 
favourable wind and a bag in which the adverse winds are 
confined. To see what it contains, Odysseus's companions 
open the bag; the winds escape and drive them back to the 
island, where Aeolus dismisses them with bitter reproaches. 
According to Virgil, Aeolus dwells on Lipari or Stromboli 
and keeps the winds imprisoned in a vast cavern, while other 
authors identify him with Zeus, and his six sons and six 
daughters with the months of the year. These classical myths 
stress what to the sailors of that age would have appeared the 
most important feature of the islands: their savage coast- 
line and seemingly variable position, exposed to every storm. 
Like ships sighted by night, at this remote period their inner 
constitution and inhabitants were deemed less worthy of 
record than their potential danger. 

A great part of the islands is rocky and sterile : in addition, 
shortage of water makes agriculture difficult in the extreme. 


In order to collect what rain may fall the houses are built 
with flat roofs in a series of terraces, from which the water is 
drained into cisterns. These cubic buildings, whitewashed 
and standing out against the grey earth like rotting bones, 
constitute the most obvious difference between the islands 
and Sicily. The vine is the chief product and, as in the soil 
round Etna, produces good wine, the most celebrated being 
Malvasia of Lipari, thick and golden, and the highly alco- 
holic fiery wine of Stromboli. 

The islands were inhabited in neolithic times and colonised 
by the Greeks: allies of Syracuse, they were even attacked by 
Athens during the Sicilian Expedition, but without success, 
It is as pirates that the islanders achieved fame in classical 
antiquity, at a time when piracy was deemed a respectable 
trade like shoemaking or fishing. So successful were the 
Aeolians in harrying the trade-routes which led through the 
straits of Messina and up the west coast of Magna Graecia 
that they were able to dedicate at Delphi costly trophies fine 
enough to vie with the magnificent gifts of the tyrants at 
Acragas or Syracuse. Under the Romans the islands became 
fashionable for their hot springs, and later even more im- 
portant as a place of exile. They must have fulfilled that 
function perfectly, lying within sight both of Sicily and Italy, 
islands of regret, sterile dungeons for men who had failed, 
and later, with the advent of Christianity, their role as places 
of exile from the world was continued by the foundation of 
a monastery. 

The inhabitants, however, far from being close and rapa- 
cious, are gentle, kind, and trusting, less quick than the 
Sicilians and harder working, but in other respects, both 
physical and moral, very similar. The most fundamental 
difference is hard to specify: it consists in an absence of all 
grace and refinement, as though the quickening breath of 
civilisation which animates Sicily had failed to touch these 
island outposts. The people's spiritual condition is typified 
by the appearance of the country; some islands, completely 
volcanic, shaggy and uncombed as wild beasts, without even 


a tree to provide a harmonious line; others partly cultivated 
but with very little vegetation and in colour remorselessly 
grey. The archipelago hardly maintains a level of subsis- 
tence; where Sicily is all flower and leaf, these rocks are 
merely root, and the life of their inhabitants reflects this 
poverty. There is less time for merely talking and standing, 
for that attitude of dolcc far nientc which a rich country can 
afford: all the people's energy goes into the rock. Depopula- 
tion is making inroads on the islands > welfare : whole families 
are leaving every year for the other side of the world for 
Australia. The Aeolians have always been people of passage, 
but this new" wave of emigration is on a far greater scale 
than any movement which has taken place in the past, so that 
the islands may one day revert to their original barren state 
the volcanoes will have gained final victory: subterranean 
forces will have taken command, and the islands will be 
shunned even as nesting-places for sea-birds. 

Here the struggle between man and a hostile nature, using 
every possible machine of war, is waged to the death. Noth- 
ing intervenes to mitigate the conflict: on land and sea naked 
flesh fights natural forces in everlasting warfare. Strong 
currents and a rocky, treacherous coast make fishing pre- 
carious; gravel and lack of rain doom the leafs attempt to 
burgeon, and over all loom the smoking, unpredictable vol- 
canoes. In Sicily a benevolent nature provides man's needs 
with open hands; here she is as mean and close as a step- 
mother. In the mountains of Lipari, especially, the people 
are on the brink of destitution. Men wear trousers so patched 
that almost nothing of the original material remains, and 
cover their feet with home-made shoes of sacking laced with 
string. In order to eke out a living they make expeditions 
into the wilderness to find the pumice-stone of which part of 
the island is composed. In their back yards they pile and 
guard as treasure huge blocks of this stone which, like the 
proverbial weight-lifter's dumb-bell, are as light as though 
made o papier mache. The whole northern end of the 
island is rendered quite white by dust of pumice in the earth: 


a sight which recalls an arctic snow-scene until one learns 
that the men and women who labour in the pumice-galleries, 
extracting the stone under appalling conditions, refer to it 
as 'Tinferno bianco." 

The fact remains that the islands are uninhabitable if a 
certain level of dignity and self-respect is to be maintained, 
a truth confirmed by nothing so much as a full-blooded gale. 
During stormy weather the Greek nomenclature is justified 
to the hilt. When a succession of waves, high as cathedrals, 
crash in a torrent of foam against the volcanic cliffs of Lipari, 
carrying in their wake the hardly identifiable remains of a 
fishing-boat wrecked during the night, the island reverts to 
its original form of existence under the sea. Then it becomes 
evident to what an extent the archipelago is a marine forma- 
tion, totally at the mercy of the waves. The destructive 
breakers are the counterpart of volcanic eruptions, the spray 
of boiling-hot springs, the hysterical shifting surface of earth 
tremors. Land and sea unite in this dance of death which 
precedes multiple human sacrifice. Between the salt batter- 
ing waves and the grey grit all existence, all life, vegetable 
and animal, is annihilated. The sea is gradually eating its own 
litter, destroying its own abortive attempt at creation, slowly 
wearing away the malformed rock in some places by water, 
in others by consuming fire. As the seas crash on the water- 
front with a mass salvo as deafening as a volcanic eruption, 
so that a shout shrinks to a whisper, the island might be a 
ship, foundering with all hands aboard. The split coast at 
any moment may fall apart to form a wreck of jagged rocks 
and ledges; the wind which gave the islands their name 
carries the spray in a winding-sheet over the dead fields; wild 
sheep and goats cower in the ruined craters of past volcanoes; 
the lighthouse sends out its silent reiterated message of alarm, 
until even that is obliterated in total darkness. . So the storm 
is consummated through the night. At dawn the islanders 
stumble out to discover the damage and estimate the cost of 
repairs, half thankful, half alarmed that they will be unable 
to make good their loss* 


Under such conditions it is astonishing that the islands 
should have been for so long inhabited, not by retarded, 
brutish nomads but by a comparatively rich people, as the 
tombs and other remains on the archipelago bear witness. 
The vases which have been excavated on the acropolis of 
Lipari form one of the most complete and unbroken cycles 
in existence, stretching from early neolithic times to the 
Renaissance. In a network of trenches numbering no more 
than a dozen, none deeper than seven yards, the entire history 
of the island has been discovered, each civilisation having left 
its layer of ceramics, a crude signature in the island's visitors' 
book. The collection is extraordinarily rich and varied, yet it 
betrays one common characteristic unique in such a sequence : 
not one of the vases was manufactured on the Aeolian 
Islands, where the soil is totally unsuitable for making terra- 
cotta. Each one of these vases, many thousand in number, 
over a period of three millennia, was imported from Italy, 
Sicily, Greece, and lands still farther distant. The natural 
question is how did the islands ever attain sufficient wealth 
to be able to acquire objects which in early times were highly 
prized. The answer varies according to the different ages. In 
neolithic times, and even to the arrival of the Greeks, 
the Aeolian Islands exported all over the Mediterranean the 
one material in which the rocks were rich obsidian, a dark- 
coloured vitreous lava. This stone was shaped into glass-like 
blades with good cutting powers, and served in place of 
knives in every corner of the civilised world. When obsidian 
and flint began to be superseded by bronze and iron, the 
Aeolian Islands had already established themselves as one of 
the trading centres for Mediterranean shipping. Later still, 
when the Greek colonisation of Southern Italy and Sicily 
relegated the smaller islands to a secondary position, they 
adopted piracy as a trade. In this way they were able to buy 
from every part of the civilised world the finest pottery in 
existence, which until recently has lain buried in a common 
grave. Now obsidian and piracy are both outmoded; the 
islanders can no longer afford expensive wares from distant 


lands, and most of the utensils now in service would not have 
been out of place in a neolithic cave. It is pathetic to look 
upon these layers of broken sherds, scattered with decaying 
bones, knowing that they form the sole memorial to the hun- 
dred generations who have inhabited the island. They do, 
however, provide a valid memorial, a true record of past 
generations, a blood test which reveals unerringly the state 
of health of a particular civilisation, the extent to which art 
and formal grace entered into the people's lives. The pale 
blue garments which serve only to set off the nakedness of 
women on Hellenistic vases reveal the effete sentimentality 
which occurs when a civilisation has passed its zenith; the 
little lamps with a minimum of decoration reveal Roman 
efficiency and esteem for practical above aesthetic values, and 
so on, each people unconsciously manifesting its character in 
the little serviceable objects of daily life. How differently 
they might have modelled these vases had they known that 
they would be judged by them ! It was so unlikely that such 
paltry objects as pots would alone survive. But it is that very 
characteristic which makes them so useful a piece of evidence 
being held in tension between fine art and pure utility, 
they reveal the extent to which grace and the aesthetic sense 
have become second nature, for if a people will go to the 
trouble and expense of using utensils which are not only 
purposeful but decorative, they already prove themselves 
appreciative of a higher scale of values than the strictly 

These sherds are as informative as any ancient papyrus 
bearing written dates of history. In the earliest bronze age 
levels of the acropolis, quite recently fragments of pottery 
have been excavated with thick diagonal stripes and large 
black discs on a neutral surface. They are broken, random 
pieces, yet their bold design reveals that they were made in 
Crete in the age known as the late Minoan IA, that is, about 
1,500 years before Christ. They are similar to sherds excavated 
by Evans from the well within Cnossus, where liparite be- 
lieved to come from the Aeolian Islands has also been found. 


This discovery is of great importance, because it throws 
fight on the pattern of Mediterranean history at a little- 
known period. Previously it had not been proved that Crete 
had expanded its trade to this area of the world at such an 
early date. Occasional bone handles, believed to be of Cretan 
origin, had been found in Sicilian cemeteries, but from such 
objects it was impossible to draw certain proof, and no Cretan 
pottery had ever before been found in Sicily or the Aeolian 
Isles. The new finds would be comparable, for instance, to 
the discovery in New Zealand, after a future dark age, of 
Staffordshire pottery, which would prove trade relations over 
a distance as long proportionately as that which separated 
Sicily from Crete in the second millennium. 

But the discovery has a more immediate importance. At 
a single stroke it validates Diodorus's story that Daedalus had 
come from Crete to Sicily before the Trojan War. Here is 
tangible proof of direct Cretan relations with the Aeolian 
Isles roughly at the period when the artist is supposed to have 
lived, and the cargoes unloaded by Cretan ships consisted 
precisely of objects of art. Past historians had known of no 
connection between Crete and Sicily at so early a period and 
in view of this not unnaturally dismissed Daedalus's voyage 
as legendary; but now, against a background of known trade 
relations, the voyage fits into the pattern of mercantile and 
artistic history. 

Interpreting Diodorus's story in this light, emphasis must 
now be placed on the close interconnection between the 
coming of Daedalus and Minos to Sicily. Personal jealousy 
can hardly have been the motive for the king's full-scale 
campaign against a distant island, any more than the steal- 
ing of Helen was the true motive for the expedition against 
Troy. In both cases expansion of trade went hand in hand 
with an attempt at conquest. Daedalus and Minos therefore 
are the two sides, refining and destructive, of the extension 
of Cretan civilisation; the first welcomed, the second re- 
pelled. The death of King Minos represents the failure of 
the attempt at total conquest, yet the burial of the King in 


Sicilian soil and the establishment of two Cretan colonies, 
which gradually expanded and introduced their own reli- 
gion to the island, is proof that the new civilisation made 
steady inroads in Sicily. Daedalus, who arrived in the van 
of an invading army, remained as a benefactor, executing 
artistic and architectural masterpieces; the new style of vases, 
such as these on Lipari, preceded the arrowheads and long 
outlived them. 

A few broken sherds have drawn Daedalus from the mists 
of legend into the half-light of prehistory. The first and 
earliest clue has been deciphered: it remains now to follow up 
the thread through succeeding centuries. Not long after the 
death of Minos the power of Crete declined, and soon the 
centre of power in the Mediterranean shifted to Greece, 
whence, centuries later, colonies were once 'again sent to 
Sicily. Of these the greatest is Syracuse, the Greek city far 
excellence. Here the search must be continued, here another 
civilisation must be scrutinised and interrogated, in the hope 
of getting back a chance word which will identify Daedalus 
and his honeycomb. 


Syracuse: The City 

A WIDE, sheltered harbour, an island detached from the 
mainland by the narrowest strip of sea, and on that island a 
fresh water spring: such was the site of the second Greek 
settlement in Sicily, a colony founded by Corinthians, des- 
tined to be one of the world's great cities. These early foun- 
dations, like seeds scattered at random, flourished or declined 
according to their geographical position. Naxos, for instance, 
the first Greek colony, was an injection which did not take. 
Good soil alone did not ensure the city's growth; sometimes 
rock was more favourable because it afforded protection; but 
above all it was grain sown beside a natural harbour that 
yielded an abundant harvest and increased a hundredfold. No 
place on the east and south coasts of the island at this time the 
only area accessible to the Greeks was naturally so strong or 
so well-sited for trade as Syracuse. The limestone formation 
which dominates the site to the north is continued down- 
wards in the island of Ortygia, which resembles a hand 
pointing, the index finger showing south. To the west and 
south lies the port, sheltered at the south-east corner by a 
projecting ridge of land, which almost completes the circle, 
leaving only a space of half a mile between itself and Ortygia. 
The city site dominates a plain some ten miles in diameter, 
and is finally shut in by the Iblean Mountains, Its exceptional 
feature is the island which was later to be developed into a 
self-contained fortress. Here the first colonists, having driven 
out the Sicels who already held the site as a trading centre, 
founded their city, giving it the name of Ortygia, after one of 
the epithets of Artemis. Soon the city began to be known 
under the name of Syracuse, after a neighbouring marsh 



called Syraka, itself in turn derived from a Phoenician word 
meaning "western place/ 5 while the name Ortygia was re- 
served for the island which, except in time of war, was linked 
to the mainland by a dyke. 

That sense of beauty which perhaps unconsciously guided 
the Greeks in their choice of city-sites was never more unerr- 
ing than in the foundation of Syracuse. The spit of land which 
is Ortygia stretches out into the Ionian Sea like a great ship 
proceeding to sail away: the peninsula has all the scenic 
advantages of an island with none of the strategic disad- 
vantages. To the west the impression is of an inland lake, 
dominated in the distance by the almost straight, low line of 
the Iblean hills, along which, immediately before it sinks, the 
sun lights a long beacon of forest fires. On the other side of 
Ortygia the prospect is unprotected: the sea breaks in spec- 
tacular waves against the sheer walls, for on this side the 
houses extend to the sea edge, and apart from the line of 
rocky coast stretching north the horizon is unbroken. From 
the mainland Ortygia has the appearance of an extended 
dyke, a single street lined with houses rising out of the sea. 
There are in fact some six streets down the length of the 
island, and twice that number across its breadth: narrow, 
winding alleys, traced in an irregular pattern as though by 
a drunkard and dividing chock-a-block houses that give the 
island the appearance of an over-loaded cargo-boat. 

The new colonists found nothing in the fabulous island 
of Ortygia so difficult to explain as the freshwater spring 
which bubbles up in a continuous fountain at the south-east 
side, only a few feet from the sea edge, as though continu- 
ally renewing the place, and it was this phenomenon which 
gave rise to a legend which linked the new colony with the 
mother country. Arethusa, so the story goes, a nymph atten- 
dant on Artemis, lived on the wild plains of Elis in the Pelo- 
ponnese. One day as she was hunting she was seen by 
Alpheus, a river god of that country, who fell passionately 
in love with her. He gave chase to the nymph, but Arethusa 
ran away and, just as she seemed to be eluding the river god, 


reached the sea. Here she believed herself lost and in des- 
peration called upon Artemis. The goddess took pity on 
her and gave the nymph the shape ofe a fountain; she leapt 
into the sea and continued to flow under the waves, pre- 
serving her own identity: 

Under the bowers 

Where the Ocean Powers 
Sit on their pearled thrones; 

Through the coral woods 

Of the weltering floods, 
Over heaps of unvalued stones. 

Finally she arrived at the island of Ortygia, where she rose 
once more to the upper world, Alpheus, meanwhile, being 
a river god, was able to follow the nymph's course from the 
coast of Elis to Ortygia and, overtaking her, mingled his own 
fresh water with hers. Thus the two lovers are united in an 
eternal embrace, continually renewed. To corroborate the 
story Syracusans aver that in the harbour a short distance 
from shore there bubbles up a stream of fresh water, which 
they claim as the river god Alpheus. 

The Fontana Aretusa is a pool of clear water, a wide well 
between high walls. Fish and geese preserve the water from 
weeds: crystal water that is ever changing, welling up at one 
side out of the rock and draining into the sea at the other. 
Around the edges grow papyrus plants in clumps, imported 
originally by the Arabs, thin reeds that explode in a net- 
work of intricate tendrils, fine as a spider's web. It is certain 
that at least until the end of the eighteenth century the water 
remained sweet, on the testimony of no less a man than 
Nelson. In June 1798 the admiral sailed into Syracuse with 
fourteen warships and remained five days, while from all 
around the Sicilians came to admire the ships, to fte the 
sailors and sell provisions. A fair was held for the crews and 
there was much revelry and rejoicing, for in the British Navy 
were placed all Sicily's hopes of avoiding domination by the 
detested French, memories of whose occupation five cen- 


times before still haunted the Sicilians. In a letter to Lord 
Hamilton from Syracuse Nelson wrote that he had taken on 
provisions and fresh water, and since the water had been 
drawn from the fountain of Arethusa he would certainly 
gain a victory. The prophecy was realised, for his warships 
sailed out from Syracuse to win the battle of Aboukir. A 
generation earlier Brydone had visited Syracuse and men- 
tioned that the fountain of Arethusa had been given over to 
washerwomen., who would have preferred even this hard, 
calcareous spring to salt sea water. Until the end of the 
eighteenth century, therefore, the legend still rang true, and 
if it was difficult to believe the corollary, that cups thrown 
into the waters of the river Alpheus in Greece had been 
found later in the Syracusan fountain, the fresh water mys- 
teriously welling up so near the sea seemed to authenticate 
at least the substance of the legend. Soon after Nelson's 
visit, however, earthquakes shook the island and the waters 
of Arethusa were discovered to be no longer sweet. Perhaps 
the earthquakes had killed the nymph or frightened her 
away; perhaps the rock which had separated fountain and 
sea was shattered. Now the waters of Arethusa are said to 
be salt, and since the fountain is guarded by lofty walls there 
is no way of discovering for sure. It is perhaps as well, for 
in the absence of personal proof, the Greeb legend exerts its 
spell, so that it is difficult to believe that the waters are not 
fresh, that this is not in truth the nymph from Elis, trans- 
formed into another shape, continually renewing both her 
love and the ancient city. 

Some people in childhood experience such success or hap- 
piness that their after-life is totally overshadowed by these 
primary events. Having tasted the sweetest fruit on the tree, 
the rest appears insipid: the years of maturity are a mere post- 
script to childhood, a period in which to reflect on theiearlier 
glory. The same is true of some Sicilian towns and of none 
more than Syracuse. As a devoted mother after the death of 
her child may keep its room exactly as it used to be when 
the child was living, with toys by the narrow bed and 


brightly coloured paper on the walls, only occasionally dust- 
ing and cleaning it with reverence, so does the present town 
preserve the memory of the city she once was. It is not that 
she made no effort to forget and transcend the past under 
the Normans and Spaniards she bid again for glory but the 
tide of history was against her. The ties with Greece which 
had formerly favoured a port on the east coast were broken, 
while Palermo and Messina were judged more convenient 
links with the mainland. Earthquakes, pirates, and plague 
in quick succession reduced her to one tenth of the size 
of the Greek city. In the Christian era she seemed destined 
to fail, and discouraged by what she believed was an adverse 
fate she retreated to the past. The architectural remains of 
her glory are far fewer than at Agrigento, for instance a 
theatre, an altar and an amphitheatre and one temple which 
serves as the cathedral but the spirit of the past is incom- 
parably more powerful and pervading. It is partly that her 
very position on the new-born island, overlooking the harbour 
which was the scene of her greatest triumph, immortalises 
those years of greatness, for she owed much of her power 
to that matchless geographical position, and partly also that 
the people still think in terms of the ancient civilisation. 
Theocritus and Archimedes, Gelon and Dionysius are far 
more real to the people of Syracuse than any of her citizens, 
however great, who have lived since the Greek period. At 
times, especially on a summer evening, when the stars are up 
over the harbour and the bustle and shouting of the vendors 
are quiet, it is possible to imagine the city still Greek, still one 
of the most splendid centres of civilisation, a ship laden with 
treasures of art setting out from the island to humanise the 

The quarries from which the Greek city was built are 
themselves cities, vast unearthly regions cut in the sheer rock. 
Of these quarries the largest is the Latomia dei Cappuccini; 
so called because a house of that Order is the nearest land- 
mark, cut into the sides of the Acradina, the high plateau 
to the north of Syracuse. A sloping path hung with bougain- 


villea leads down to the subterranean canyon: in a minute 
one passes from the hot, flat, noisy earth with its dome of 
blue sky to a world as shadowy and as silent as the sea- 
depths. Since there are almost no qualities common to the 
two realms, a totally new language would be required to 
describe properly these remote regions. The immediate view 
is of the city walls, that is, the sheer sides of the quarry, sixty 
feet in height, surrounding a site of uneven pattern. They 
might appear natural rather than man-made walls, for there 
are no gaps between stones, were it not for a rectilinear pre- 
cision which nature never achieves. Ivy creeps up the sides 
and prickly pears on the summit let a branch hang down, as 
though trying to lend a helping hand. While the sides are 
sheer and precisely vertical, in the centre of the canyon at 
irregular intervals rise vast, vague megaliths, unshaped and 
eroded by the wind to assume absolutely meaningless shapes. 
On this monster one side is worn to a sharp, beak-like edge, 
the other being squat and square, while that formation takes 
the form of a pyramid, and still another is cut off short 
before it has time to articulate its gibberish. What purpose 
was served by leaving this uncut rock at intervals is difficult 
to say: it may be that the pillars are composed of inferior 
stone, useless for building, or that they supported a roof 
which has long since fallen in. Between these pillars and 
within the perimeter of the walls a garden has been laid out, 
a garden of flowers and trees and citrus groves in the centre 
of this hidden city: a sunken garden, but deeper than all 
others like it, so profound that only a narrow ribbon of blue 
sky is visible between the fortress walls. It is a protected, 
secret garden, where one would expect curious and perhaps 
deadly flowers to grow, the equivalent of marine, man- 
eating anemones. Yet these plants are the familiar ones of 
the upper world geraniums and marguerites, arum lilies 
and bougainvillea; and the trees are cypresses and olives, 
lemons and oranges, palm trees and cacti. Only the last 
seem appropriate, their squat, formless shapes representing 
in another order of being the megaliths and pyramids. A 


meagre t-hin soil has been spread on the rocky floor, yet the 
flowers bloom and the trees bear as spectacularly as in the 
upper world. It must after all be an enchanted, a marvellous 
garden to produce this fruit from the bare, prime rock, these 
yellows and pinks from the relentless grey. One almond-tree 
still in blossom, its rose-white petals for all their fragility 
getting the better of the walls, seems out of place as a bou- 
quet of flowers brought by some benefactor to brighten a 

That word draws groans and sighs from the walls, un- 
covers memories best left undisturbed, for this city of fruit 
and flowers, this enchanted garden, was once nothing less 
than a prison: not for a few local malefactors but for the 
remnants of the greatest Greek army that ever went into 
battle. Here in this dungeon open to the sky, this stone 
sheep-pen, the seven thousand Athenian survivors of the 
expedition which set out to conquer Sicily were incarcerated 
for a period of eight months. Here, under appalling condi- 
tions, with a pittance of food and water, they were com- 
pelled to strengthen their own prison, to add to the already 
towering walls, to dig their own mass grave. Not slaves but 
Athenian citizens, not confessed criminals but cultured and 
enlightened men, turned a hillside into a canyon to provide 
more stone for the swelling city they had come to destroy. A 
few only were released before the eight months were up, not 
the. wealthy or strong or influential, for Syracuse was a Greek 
city, but those who could recite by heart parts of Euripides's 
plays, the Athenian dramatist being so admired in the capital 
city of Sicily that his words alone could swing back an open- 
ing in the rock. After their imprisonment those who had 
survived the terrible conditions were sold into slavery, to 
languish as tutors and worse in perpetual exile. But they had 
left behind an imperishable monument, not a city as Athens 
and Acragas were cities, but a subterranean metropolis, built 
with the same sort of stone, encircled with even thicker 
ramparts. It proved no less costly in labour for having been 
hewn out of the earth. Marks of the thin pickaxe, a miser- 


ably inadequate tool for such gigantic work, cover the area 
of the walls: primitive hieroglyphics, a rudimentary arith- 
metic. Were these units calculated and translated into 
descriptive terms they would reveal the true story of the 
imprisonment: how, unprotected from the sun and parched 
with thirst, amid the stench of unburied dead, they were 
forced interminably to scale and level walls which, like the 
hydra, were continually re-created. 

Gradually the orange and lemon trees conspire to hide 
those vestiges of the city's origin, and another aspect of the 
place becomes apparent: the silence which seems to lie in 
caverns, a stillness as tangible as the shadow itself, a counter- 
part to coolness. It is not, however, an ominous or brooding 
silence, for it is interrupted all the while by bird song, by 
the calls of chaffinches and tits and wagtails : it is the silence 
of a bird sanctuary. As the light shifts, the canyon calls up 
still another image: this is neither city nor dungeon nor en- 
chanted garden but a forest: the same shadows and coolness, 
the same alternation of hushed and ringing sounds: a forest 
perhaps that has suffered a sea-change and become petrified: 
a forest of stone. In this glade between cool trees, the 
shadows always fall; dawn is continual, spring is continual, 
and the birds are never hushed by the heat of the day. In 
the patches of sunlight flies and bees make a murmurous 
music as they move, like the off-white colour of a page on 
which the birds compose their songs. One of them starts 
from a mandarine tree and flits soundlessly away to the 
north, out of sight, into the wall, so it seems. But the wall is 
a passage, and this first great canyon only the vestibule, the 
antechamber to others still more extraordinary. The way 
lies under a great natural bridge of rock, an architrave some 
sixty feet wide and forty long, at the summit of the walls : an 
uneven coarse block of stone which was left undisturbed as 
a roof or bridge, who can tell? It serves to increase the out- 
landish nature of the system, to co-ordinate it according to 
some incomprehensible primeval plan. 

The second canyon is planted With lemon trees only, but 


wild flowers, undistouraged by the austere surroundings, 
make a garden here no less colourful than the first. Between 
the summits of the walls, on a river of blue a half-moon is 
floating, its ragged edges, its grey-and-white dappled com- 
plexion so like those of the canyon that it seems hewn out of 
the same rock, a light fragment that has risen to the surface 
of the waters and is gliding gently away. This image more 
than any other seems near the truth, conveying by analogy 
the ineffable qualities of the place. It is not a subterranean 
city, but a city under the sea, a lost, abandoned Atlantis. The 
blue above is the remote surface of the sea, the coolness im- 
parted by invisible currents of water originating in the frozen 
north, and these shapeless megaliths ruined palaces, worn 
away by a waste of waves. The silence in this second canyon 
(for no birds have ventured thus far) is that of death by 
drowning under the mountainous ranges of water. Every- 
thing that happens here is subject to that crushing weight; 
everything over-oppressed, futile and condemned to petti- 
ness. The trees which elsewhere had seemed so magni- 
ficent, stretching up towards heaven, are pitiful absurdities, 
wasting their energy in a hopeless attempt to reach ground 
level, the flowers doomed to dance in an empty, provincial 

Out of this sterile canyon a grotto leads to a third suburb, 
again a garden, smaller but richer in citrus trees, and the sea- 
vision, as inexplicably as it arose, now loses all conviction. A 
single lemon tree dispels it. Its slender trunk, so smooth 
and ungnarled compared with the neighbouring olives, grey 
as the limestone, seems to grow out of the canyon itself, 
almost to be part of it. Six branches, at various angles and 
heights, distribute the sap to a maze of subsidiary shoots and 
twigs, on which hang pointed oval leaves of delicate and 
unobtrusive green, a green which still retains a suggestion of 
its grey origin. Laid against these are the lemons, in such 
a profusion of clusters, in such abundance that they might 
have been crowded there like a myriad Japanese lanterns at 
an impassioned festival rather than slowly and arduously 


born from such narrow branches. The unripe fruit, its colour 
hesitating between green and yellow., seems still to be emerg- 
ing from leaf, branch, and canyon, the process of growth 
illustrated in the growing brilliance of colour. The ripe 
lemons, a cool, moonlit yellow, are almost emancipated from 
the earth: they have already drawn some sweetness from the 
sun. This profusion of fruit is sustained quite eff ortlesly by 
the tree, the branches seeming light as the cascading jets of 
a fountain, and the fruit no more ponderous than drops of 
amber water. Some have fallen to the ground, in time to be 
collected in the deep basin, in time to be drawn upwards by the 
fountain, in time once more to gush and be caught for a 
single moment in the sunlight, urgent with that beauty which 
is flashed off ripeness everywhere. 

From these quarries, a generation after they served as a 
prison, Dionysius the Great drew stone to fortify the city and 
erect some of its most magnificent buildings. This tyrant, 
the most famous of all Sicilian rulers, is a type not only of 
the many despots, from Phalaris to the Bourbons, who have 
stood astride the island; but also of the warrior artist who 
is to reappear, time and again, throughout the course of the 
island's history. 

Dionysius was an upstart who during the Carthaginian 
wars gained absolute power as a military leader first in Syra- 
cuse and later over virtually the whple island. Curiously 
enough, he first discovered that he was destined for sover- 
eignty one day while he was out riding, when a swarm of 
bees attached themselves to his horse's mane, an omen which 
he took as certain proof that he would attain absolute rule., 
Evidently within the island bees were considered symbolic of 
royal power, a notion which perhaps stems back to some such 
figure as Daedalus, who would 'have transferred to Sicily the 
Cretan belief that the insect had royal associations. Only later 
was the bee widely established as a royal symbol, being 
adopted by the Romans, by the French kings, and especially 
by Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew. The connection be- 
tween the swarm on the tyrant's horse and a flesh-and-blood 


Daedalus is, at the most, slender, but in combination with 
other evidence even such a detail may prove significant. 

War, defensive and aggressive, continued throughout the 
tyrant's reign of almost forty years, for Dionysius believed 
that military glory was the only way whereby a dictator who 
lacked birth and a winning personality could maintain his 
people's loyalty. The resentment evoked by his cruelty in- 
creased a naturally suspicious nature and he went about in 
constant fear of his life. Modelling his bedroom after the 
defences of his castle, around his golden bed he constructed 
a moat, crossed by a little draw-bridge. When one of his 
courtiers, a certain Damocles, spoke of him as the happiest 
of mortals, since he possessed all that a man could desire, 
Dionysius asked him whether he wanted to taste this life, an 
offer which was eagerly accepted. The tyrant then gave 
orders that Damocles was to be treated as himself and 
secretly arranged that whatever he was doing, whether feast- 
ing, drinking, or sleeping in the tyrant's golden bed, a sword 
should be suspended by a horsehair over his head. Damocles 
spent the day in a state of abject terror, too frightened even 
to eat or drink. In the evening Dionysius approached him 
with the words, "Now yotf know what it is like to be a 
tyrant," and allowed the panic-stricken man to return to his 
normal life. 

By consolidating his own power he indirectly saved the 
western Greek world from the barbarian, but he consistently 
proved that he cared nothing for civilisation, forcing 
colony after colony into barren servitude. Yet his Greek 
birthright found an outlet in another side of his character. 
Just as his predecessor, Hieron, a suspicious, greedy, cruel 
tyrant, had a passionate love of poetry and made his court 
the greatest literary centre of the world, to which Bacchy- 
lides and Pindar, Simonides and Aeschylus resorted, so 
Dionysius, a man of low birth and no moral sense, was de- 
voted to literature, and above all the drama. All his life he 
Wrote tragedies and poems which failed to find appreciation 
either at home or abroad. It is said that a certain Philoxenus 



was sent to the quarries for refusing to applaud the tyrant's 
poems. Some time later when he was again received at 
court, Philoxenus was pressed for his opinion of a new poem 
by Dionysius. He answered by beckoning to an officer with 
the words "Back to the quarries!" But the story goes that 
on this occasion his wit won him forgiveness. At the 
Athenian festivals Dionysius frequently gained the second 
and third prizes, but always failed to win outright: for the 
mightiest ruler of Greece, for a tyrant whose power was no 
less than that of the great King of Persia, this was a galling 
humiliation. At last, in his old age, his tragedy The Ran- 
som of Hector won first prize at one of the lesser Athenian 
festivals. Dionysius was so jubilant that he ordered a public 
holiday and provided food and wine for the people. A monu- 
mental feast was set out before the successful tragedian, rival 
of the greatest playwrights of the past, even of Aeschylus and 
Sophocles. Far into the morning the tyrant banqueted, his 
life-long ambition at last fulfilled, triumphant on the stage 
as he had been in his life, but so intemperately did he eat and 
drink that at dawn he suffered a stroke and died. 

All his plays and poems have perished with him and the 
tyrant is chiefly remembered in Syracuse for a curious monu- 
ment which he probably did not construct. The Ear of 
Dionysius, as it is called, is an artificial grotto, its ground- 
plan in the form of an extended S, some sixty-five yards long. 
Its width, nine yards at the base, diminishes gradually to less 
than a few feet near the top, so that the entrance has the 
appearance of an inverted pimento. Its height increases from 
twenty yards at the entrance to thirty yards at the far end. 
Its walls are sheer, comparatively smooth and marked with 
the indentations of pickaxes, so that the cave cannot, as some 
would suppose, be a purely natural construction. It is re- 
markable not only for its curious ground-plan and the 
marked tapering of its side walls, but also for acoustical 
effects. A whisper or the faintest sound, such as the tearing 
of paper, near the entrance echoes back with multiplied in- 
tensity and all the way up the cave the slightest noise is 


returned with compound interest. No one knows its history 
or for what purpose it was designed, and its name is a com- 
paritively recent invention. In 1588 the Syracusan archaeo- 
logist Vincenzo Mirabella and the painter Michelangelo da 
Caravaggio, who was to exercise an important influence on 
Sicilian art, were visiting the artificial grotto. Caravaggio, 
struck by its close resemblance to the central part of the 
human ear, conceived the idea that Dionysius, the tyrant of 
Syracuse, had constructed the cave in this shape to serve as 
a prison: by listening at a hole above ground, he would have 
been able to hear, thanks to the echo, even the hushed secrets 
exchanged by its prisoners. The theory is an imaginative one 
and although it savours too much of Caravaggio's notorious 
persecution-mania, it cannot be dismissed lightly. There are, 
however, many difficulties in the way of accepting it as the 
true explanation of the grotto's purpose. In the first place, 
the cave is so elaborately and even beautifully constructed 
that it is hard to imagine such care being expended on a 
mere prison. Again, Dionysius was a realist, not the sort of 
person to indulge in such extraordinary fancies. When he 
wished to extort secrets from political prisoners, he turned 
to more effective methods. Finally, such a prison would soon 
become so notorious that anyone confined to it would cer- 
tainly avoid speaking of important matters. The theory is 
instructive, however, for it shows how a plausible story which 
is logically false but imaginatively true will gain credence 
and eventually become accepted as the proper explanation. 
This particular theory has the advantage of linking a great 
monument to a great historical figure, so that the visible and 
the legendary reinforce and substantiate each other. 

Scholars and scientists have put forward explanations 
which, besides lacking the colour of Caravaggio's theory, are 
palpably absurd. The most far-fetched is that the cave 
served in some obscure way as a resonant sounding-box for 
the nearby Greek theatre. What precise function it had 13 
not made clear: but the fact that it lies far behind and be- 
neath the farthest tiers of the theatre on the opposite side 


from the stage and at least a hundred yards from it marks 
the notion as ridiculous. Another group of scholars believe 
that the cave is simply a quarry and that its peculiar, winding 
shape is to be explained by the fact that it followed the 
course of a subterranean stream of water. This theory has 
the merit of accounting for the curious ground-plan, but it 
fails to account for the equally extraordinary shape of the 
cross-section, tapering at the roof to an extremely narrow 
breadth. A more damaging objection is that there was no 
lack of similar stone at hand, which could have been ob- 
tained without a hundredth part of the labour required to 
extract material from this narrow seam. To find a more 
satisfactory explanation it is necessary to go either farther 
back or farther forward in time. There appear to be two 
plausible solutions. The most striking and unique features 
of the grotto are its acoustical properties and the dark, over- 
awing atmosphere imparted by its winding shape. It is not 
impossible, therefore, that it was constructed expressly to dis- 
play one or other of these features: either for a scientific or a 
religious purpose. In the first case, Archimedes, the Syracusan 
scientist of the third century before Christ, may have been 
the architect: the practical demonstration of scientific phe- 
nomena would have been in keeping with the other facts 
known about his life. The grotto, then, a testing-ground for 
acoustical properties, would constitute the first surviving link 
in that long line of analogous workshops designed for scien- 
tific experiment which culminates in the wind-tunnel. If, 
on the other hand, the grotto is taken to be a religious sanctu- 
ary, its date would be much earlier perhaps before the 
Greek colony arrived in Syracuse. Its winding shape and 
narrow entrance, obscuring the light sufficiently to induce 
awe, do not produce total darkness. The extraordinary 
echo may have been used by magicians to produce answers 
to the prayers or questions of worshippers, while a primitive 
attempt at constructing a lofty building the sloping walls 
joining to form a pointed vault would account for the unor- 
thodox lateral shape. It may well be, therefore, that the so- 


called Ear of Dionysius was a terrestrial sanctuary: a point of 
communication with the forces of nature, where supernatural 
voices could be heard. 

The history of Syracuse under Dionysius's successors reveals 
the decline and fall of the Greek ideal, and also has a highly 
relevant importance as showing the first transition of Sicily 
from one civilisation to another, a process which in later 
centuries was to be repeated many times. 

The son of a tyrant is generally weak and dissolute, for 
not only does he lack the basic qualities imparted by noble 
blood, but brought up in luxury at a court where his father 
is feared rather than admired, he learns to love his own way, 
despise discipline and mistrust rule of any kind. The son of 
Dionysius was no exception: in him the vigour and ambition 
of the father degenerated to dalliance and vanity. For ex- 
ample, one day the elder Dionysius found his son in an in- 
trigue with another man's wife. He took the young man 
aside, and told him that if he did that sort of thing he would 
not be tyrant for long; it was by keeping himself from such 
deeds that he had been able to hold power for so many years. 
He then withdrew, while his son with a petulant laugh con- 
tinued his love-making. 

Dionysius II had an uncle named Dion, a philosopher and 
upright man of the highest ideals, a passionate believer in 
aristocracy. It was he who invited Plato to Syracuse in the 
hope of making a philosopher-king out of the most powerful 
ruler in Greece. Plato, though sixty years of age and enjoy- 
ing at Athens the widest influence and respect, accepted the 
invitation: at last he had been given the opportunity to realise 
his long-cherished ideals in a great Greek city. But he reck- 
oned without a ruler swayed by the ever-changing current 
of Sicilian politics. Dionysius listened to the philosopher for 
a while with pleasure; geometry became fashionable at his 
court; he talked of making reforms and even of giving up 
the tyranny. But these noble resolutions came to nothing. 
Party politicians set Dionysius against Dion, who was sent in 
to exile. Later he proceeded to confiscate the exile's property. 


declared Dion's wife Arete divorced and gave her in mar- 
riage to one of his own courtiers. In disgust Plato decided 
to abandon the attempted conversion and returned to Athens. 
His departure was also rendered a matter of prudence by the 
hostility of the mercenaries, who attributed to his influence 
the fact that their pay had been curtailed. It was an undigni- 
fied, almost ludicrous defeat for the lofty ideals of pure 

With the news of Dionysius's brutality towards his wife, 
Dion abandoned his hopes of reconciliation and prepared to 
avenge his wrongs by force. Raising volunteers throughout 
Greece and Sicily, he marched on Syracuse, where the citi- 
zens rose en masse against their dissolute ruler and opened 
the gates as to a liberator. Once in control of the city, Dion 
proceeded to organise the government on aristocratic, even 
Platonic lines, with himself as philosopher-king. As proof 
of his high ideals he granted a pardon to his democratic 
opponents, but with the passing of time he found himself 
able to retain power only by force of cruelty and assassina- 
tions. From that moment he was lost. Without a tyrant's 
temperament, he wavered uneasily between the dictates of 
conscience and the necessity for keeping power, and was 
finally assassinated by his enemies only two years after liber- 
ating Syracuse. Thus the intervention of two philosophers 
in practical politics led in one case to defeat and disillusion- 
ment, in the other to victory and tragic death. Dionysius 
returned as tyrant to the capital city and it was left to Timo- 
leon, another high-minded Greek who, in addition, was a 
skilful general and an astute politician, to liberate the island 
from tyranny. Not, however, for long. A succession of up- 
starts who resumed the tyranny culminated in the benevolent 
kingship of Hieron II, who ruled Syracuse and eastern 
Sicily for over half a century, first in his own right, and later 
as a dependent ally of Rome, for it was during his lifetime 
that Rome emerged as the world's greatest power and tenta- 
tively established her legions in the island. The outcome of 
the first Punic War had been to give Rome a still disputed 


ascendancy over the whole Mediterranean, and Sicily, as 
always, became the most bitterly contested prize in the re- 
current war between Europe and Africa. Under Greeks, 
Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans, like a piece of 
choice food between two dogs, the island was to be continually 
mangled by the warring continents. 

Hieron was perfectly free in the administration of his own 
kingdom, but in foreign policy he found it prudent to follow 
the lead of Rome. His rule was prosperous for the city; he 
built many public buildings, including a great altar, two 
hundred yards long, dedicated to Zeus in thanksgiving for 
the overthrow of one of the previous tyrants. This altar still 
stands, a long stone floor on three steps, approached by a 
ramp, up which bulls to the number of 450 were driven to be 
sacrificed, perhaps the largest altar ever erected by man. 
Even now, the interminable structure is an impressive sight; 
how much more impressive it must have been when, amid 
the shrieks of dying bulls, to the glory of Zeu&, it became a 
steaming river of animal blood. The edifice reflects Hieron's 
character: in an age of growing disbelief he was dutiful and 
reverent towards the gods, mild and just; moreover, he con- 
trolled wide dominions, all land paid a tithe to the state, and 
Syracuse ranked among the wealthiest of contemporary cities. 
The tribute which his namesake would have expended on 
banquets and debauchery, he reserved for the gods, and the 
annual sacrifice of almost half a thousand bulls. 

After his death, the city, in a mood of pique, exchanged 
her alliance with Rome for the camp of Carthage, at that 
time under Hannibal the Great engaged in their second war 
against the legions. The Romans immediately laid siege to 
Syracuse, a siege that lasted more than two years. Archi- 
medes was still living, a very old man, and he devoted his 
whole powers to the defence of the beleaguered city : it was said 
that he alone was the soul of Syracuse. He pierced the walls 
with eyelet holes for sharpshooters; he lined the battlements 
with artillery of every kind; he constructed iron hands by 
which soldiers who came near the wall were caught up into 


the air. Against the devices of Archimedes the Romans could 
make no headway; eventually the attack was abandoned by 
land and sea and only a few troops left to continue the siege. 
It was an incident which symbolised perfectly the state of 
European affairs: Greece, grown old and dabbling now in 
science instead of writing poetry or running at the Olympic 
games, is still clever enough to resist the vigorous young 
Roman troops, lacking a little in confidence, not yet skilled 
in the subtleties of military technique. Archimedes declared 
that with a lever sufficiently long he could lift the world. In 
his last days he did almost as much: with his inventions he 
held back the armies of Rome from their most precious prize. 

But Syracuse did fall eventually, as most decaying cities 
fall, by means of desertion and treachery, and with the body 
the soul too departed: the soul, so it seemed, of all Greek 
Sicily. The story goes that Marcellus, Roman commander 
of the occupation troops in Syracuse, sent for Archimedes. 
When the message came, the philosopher was busy with a 
mathematical problem; he asked to be allowed to finish it; 
the soldier deputed to escort him seemingly misunderstood 
and in his haste drew a sword and killed the old man. He 
was the last genius of Greek Sicily, a philosopher-scientist, 
but neither his philosophy nor his science was proof against 
that lack of self-confidence, that fear of a great new nation 
in arms, which issued in treachery. 

The booty transported from Syracuse was enormous. For 
the first time Roman eyes were opened to the glories of Greek 
civilisation: a revolution took place in Roman art as momen- 
tous as that which occurred at the Renaissance, and in both 
cases the discovery was the same. Greek paintings and sculp- 
ture, buildings and temples became the ragd of Rome, so that 
even before the Greeks, the Sicilians could claim to have en- 
slaved their conquerors. Much that was best and most beau- 
tiful in Sicily, the flower of five centuries of civilisation, was 
transferred to Rome, to be patiently copied, to provide a pre- 
text for endless pastiche, and eventually to be handed down 
to future ages. 


Syracuse: The Arts 

THE depredations of Verres and the Roman merchants, how- 
ever methodical, could not extend to the buildings nor to 
all the portable works of art, of which the smallest and most 
exquisite are the Syracusan gold coins. Just as pottery gives 
evidence of popular aesthetic values, these reveal the taste 
of the ruling class, and confirm that high appreciation of art 
which its patronage and interestin poetry have already sug- 

Among the most perfect are the gold coins engraved by 
Cimon, depicting Persephone and Heracles. These minia- 
tures miraculously concentrate the whole glofy of an epoch 
within their small circumference: being gold, a metal rarely 
use<d in those days for coinage, they testify to prosperity; the 
portrayal of divinities gives proof of a firm religious founda- 
tion; while the fine modelling of the features, true to the last 
delicate detail, reveals a humanism and an artistry which re- 
deem even material wealth from baseness. Such work was 
imitated, but never surpassed, both in Italy and in Greece. 

No such excellence can arise spontaneously, and just as the 
greatest folk tales are not evolved by the "people" but are 
made up in remote antiquity by individual story-tellers who 
may be peasants but are none the less men or women of 
genius, so this tradition of die-engraving must eventually 
be traced back to one craftsman of exceptional gifts. For two 
reasons it would be an unacceptable reading of the legend to 
say that Daedalus merely offered a gold coin engraved with 
a honeycomb. In the first place it is highly unlikely that 
coinage existed at so early an epoch in the Mediterranean, and 
secondly, the surviving coins of Erice, which would certainly 



have repeated such a significant emblem, reveal nothing 
closer to it than an occasional branch of honeysuckle. Never- 
theless, the coins of Syracuse may well derive from the work 
of Daedalus the goldsmith and their perfection goes some 
way towards substantiating Diodorus's praise of the original 
master's genius. " 

Among the divine faces on Sicilian coins, Arethusa, 
Athena, and Persephone, one in particular stands out, that of 
Aphrodite, for in it must be sought a substitute for the miss- 
ing head on the greatest of all Syracusan works of art, the 
statue of Aphrodite. This white-marble work depicts the 
goddess leaving the sea, where she has been bathing, her left 
hand grasping to her thighs a garment which falls behind 
and beside her feet like a shell. Her right arm, which has 
been broken off above the elbow, was held across her body 
in a gesture of modesty: the protuberances in the marble, 
designed to hold the arm in place, are still there, one just 
below the breasts, the other on the left arm. Beside her 
feet rises a dolphin, the goddess's own symbol, which 
serves here also to designate the sea. As well as the right 
arm the head of the statue is missing: a fact which Maupas- 
sant held to be of the utmost significance, for it seemed to 
illustrate his belief that in the final analysis woman is a purely 
animal creature, without rational or spiritual faculties : a figure 
of pure passion. Other less accidental features of the statue 
make nonsense of this half-hysterical interpretation, but be- 
fore considering them it is necessary to decide whether the 
subject is human or divine, imperfect or totally idealised. At 
first sight the proportions of the body suggest that the sculp- 
tor was creating his ideal: the tall undulant figure, a waist 
slender by Greek standards, firm legs with ankles that today 
might seem too robust but which in that age were admired 
as the sign of strength. Only the fingers and toes reveal -the 
human nature of the subject. Far from being idealised, their 
is realistically depicted: the fingers are thick and 
flat, stubby tips, while both feet have very long toes, 
in each case the little toe is placed far back on the side 


of the foot. Though the subject is beautiful, she is imperfect; 
human not divine; and in this the sculptor was conforming to 
the spirit of his age. Euripides had been the first great artist 
to portray the gods with purely human qualities and weak- 
nesses; from there it was a short stage to treating them as 
mere mortals. So it is with this statue: the goddess, if her feet 
are not made of clay, at least reveals a human shortcoming in 
her unattractive toes. 

While the sculptor was in respect of detail a realist, and 
of religion a rationalist, in all other regards he was transcen- 
dentally imaginative, ordering the work to his own original 
plan. In the whole statue nothing is more inspired than the 
line of the garment Aphrodite holds across her body. It is 
a commotion of light and shadow which sets off the white 
smoothness of the flesh, a crumpled stormcloud which men- 
aces the figure's orderly lines, a stretch of undulating country 
separating sea and sky. It is the barest of coverings, this 
narrow drapery, and the half-modesty of the retaining ges- 
ture is calculated to accentuate its inadequacy, just as the 
right arm, which in the original was stretched across the 
body, extended below the breasts without hiding them. The 
line of that arm repeated in a higher octave the same note 
achieved by the drapery, while the diagonal line of the left 
hand obviates too stiff and angular an attitude. 

*The position of the drapery and the gesture which holds 
it raise the problem whether the status was purposely de- 
signed as an aphrodisiac, along the lines of her cult at Erice. 
While the male figure ever since the early stages of Greek 
sculpture had been depicted nude, as indeed it always was in 
the gymnasia and at the athletic games, until the late* Hellen- 
istic age the female figure had usually been shown more or 
less fully clothed. With the decline of Greece, military 
prowess and strength of body lost esteem, and women as- 
sumed an importance they had never had in the classical 
period. Romantic love became the artist's theme, and the 
goddess of love, no longer an ethereal divinity but the symbol 
of passion, replaced Zeus as the most important member of 


the pantheon. In proportion as this new fashion gained force 
and the old standards of morality between the sexes declined 
with the changing structure of society, so the veils were lifted 
from the female form. But they were seldom completely 
stripped away: one veil was usually left as a concession to the 
traditional moral code. In the Aphrodite of Syracuse this 
veil is given a purpose, and there is nothing about the rest 
of the statue to suggest that the work possesses more than the 
usual erotic overtones attaching to a statue of the goddess of 
love; in fact, the voluptuous aspects of the body are not empha- 
sised or depicted with more care than the rest, and the milk- 
white colour of the marble imparts to the statue an inefface- 
able purity. 

The figure, composed of sea-foam, rises from the waves: 
the whole body is smooth, but the legs have a specially 
polished surface to suggest the glistening of water. Indeed, 
at moments the goddess seems to be standing in the sea, such 
is the equivocal quality of the lower part of her drapery, 
which forms now a grotto, now a stretch of waves. It is this 
affinity with the sea which is the essential feature of the work, 
an extraordinary achievement gained entirely by suggestion, 
for only the dolphin is there to set the scene. The marble has 
a melting quality, as though it really were the snow its colour 
says it is; the flowing, liquid lines of the drapery are drawn 
up through the fingers of the hand into the body itself, which 
assumes the undulating lines of a breeze-swept sea. The fin- 
gers serve another purpose, also, for their alternation of light 
and shade dovetails with the drapery, so that the hand, arm 
and body appear to continue in a calmer form the line of 
water which under the aspect of the drapery was disarranged 
and swept by tides. More than any other part of the statue, 
the back has undergone this sea-change: the long wide ex- 
panse of smooth flesh, on which each muscle is delineated, is 
a Mediterranean seascape, moonlight reflected on the sur- 
face, shadows falling between the swelling waves. As for the 
head, each person who sees the statue must create it anew 
after the pattern of his own ideal. The qualities which con- 


stitute bodily beauty are agreed, but beauty of face and ex- 
pression must find a kindred spirit to be admired. Yet, so 
skilfully has the sculptor expressed the inner in the outer 
forms, the character of his subject is already apparent in her 
body, from which it is possible to guess the main lines of the 
missing head. It is dignified without being divine, graceful 
without being ethereal, vital without losing tranquility, beau- 
tiful without limitation: the head of a woman whom the 
sculptor Idved but did not fully understand. The mystery he 
glimpsed in her he symbolised in the oldest of all symbols of 
love the sea, whose forms distinguished her face no less 
than her body: her wet and glistening hair, her ears whorled 
like shells and her eyes, which reflect the moonlit, untroubled 
depths of the Mediterranean. 

Such perhaps was the picture in Daedalus's mind as he laid 
his offering in Aphrodite's sanctuary over a thousand years 
earlier, and such perhaps was the ideal figure which led 
Sicilians for so many centuries up the road to the island's 
watchtower. The cult of Aphrodite at Erice had an excep- 
tionally long life. As Diodorus says, all other sanctuaries 
enjoyed a flush of fame, but frequently were brought low by 
some mischance, whereas Erice was the only temple which, 
founded as it were at the beginning of time, not only never 
failed to be the object of veneration but, on the contrary, as 
time went on increased its great renown. No people were 
more devoted to the goddess than the Romans, who through 
Aeneas traced their ancestry back to her. The consuls and 
praetors who visited the island embellished the sanctuary with 
sacrifices and honours, and, laying aside their grave manner, 
revelled with the temple priestesses, in the belief that only in 
this way could they make their presence there pleasing to the 
goddess. The Roman senate went so far as to decree that the 
seventeen cities of Sicily which were most faithful to Rome 
should pay a tax in gold to Aphrodite at Erice and that two 
hundred soldiers should serve as a guard, to her shrine. Thus 
the elemental forces latent in a local sanctuary were harnessed 
and transmitted far and wide to serve a military imperialism. 


In this statue the goddess stands at the height of her 
powers, in the full bloom of her beauty, surrounded by ad- 
mirers, Sicilian, Greek and Roman. Her original statue at 
Erice may have been an unlovely and primitive object, for it 
is known that the holy of holies of many a magnificent Greek 
temple contained nothing more worthy of adoration than a 
crude wooden idol or an awkwardly hewn stone. Such a 
state of affairs would have mattered little to the original 
islanders, but it may be imagined that Daedalus, coming 
from a country of high civilisation, was dissatisfied and left 
his influence in this sphere as in others. Only his offering to 
Aphrodite is recorded, but since he was primarily a sculptor, 
doubtless he taught that art to the countrymen of his adop- 
tion, fashioning the prototype from which this Hellenistic 
work is directly descended. 

For several reasons it is fitting that this statue almost alone 
of the great works of Greek sculpture should survive. First, 
since it represents Aphrodite, the work bears witness to a 
continuous cult which dominated Sicily down to the Chris- 
tian era. That cult was to be taken up and sanctified under 
the new dispensation, and eros given a universal meaning as 
agape, but at this point Aphrodite still stands supreme, a 
sacrament mistaken for a goddess. Secondly, it shows that 
purely natural religion, left to itself, tends at its highest point 
to become a worship of human beauty and, however emanci- 
pated it may become from the primitive rites performed at 
Acragas, must always remain tinged with the elements of a 
fertility cult. If the greatest rite of the dark mystery cults 
was the secret unveiling of an ear of corn, the official religion 
could offer its devotees hardly more: the physical love of a 
beautiful woman. For all their proud liturgical display the 
truth, in both cases, was pathetically narrow, limited and 
human. Finally, this statue represents the end of a tradition. 
Christianity would produce sculpture but neither in Sicily 
nor elsewhere would it emulate work like this. The body 
would be clothed and spiritual virtues would require the 
Daore exact medium of paint for their expression. Of all that 


was most beautiful in a world still unaware of revelation, the 
Aphrodite of Syracuse is the final and ultimate symbol. 

To turn from Greek art to Roman, which in Syracuse takes 
the form of a vast amphitheatre standing, significantly 
enough, close to the fan-like ruins of the Greek theatre, is to 
leave civilisation for barbarism, to realise graphically how 
little the Romans contributed, how much they marred. In 
most realms of art they were content to copy. In architecture 
they made use of the dome and arch unknown to the 
Greeks but not Roman inventions yet built for a utilitarian 
rather than aesthetic purpose; their painting was pastiche; 
one great poet they produced, but even he had to work in a 
borrowed form. Their philosophers were eclectics, their 
divinities discarded Greeks. They merely transmitted by 
force of arms a heritage which was not theirs: they gave a 
language and laws to Europe, but added little new beauty. As 
artists they lacked the creative spirit, and tended to accept 
unquestioningly materials and forms which had already been 
'carried past perfection. Moreover, they lacked a balanced 
sensibility; whenever the aesthetic sense becomes apparent, it 
soon degenerates into lipury or sentimentality. Perhaps the 
possession of a great emjfire, with the consequent expenditure 
of talent and energy oM administrative and military affairs, 
precludes great culture; perhaps, in order to civilise, one 
must deny oneself the refinements of civilisation. 

No art is more representative of a people's total cultufe 
than drama, for it requires not only several enlightened 
patrons (as other arts do) but also a communal interest in and 
appreciation of crucial moral dilemmas. When drama de- 
clines into melodrama and comedy of situation, when clown- 
ing takes the place of high tragedy, when the hero is replaced 
by the ordinary man in the street, it is a sign that the people's 
taste has become coarse and their moral sense debased. 
This is precisely what happened when the Romans copied the 
New Comedy, but made of it degraded buffoonery. Soon 
there came a point when people could no longer be persuaded 
to enter a theatre at all: the sight of men and women work- 


ing out their destiny no longer interested them; they pre- 
ferred to watch wild beasts shedding animal and human 
blood. It cannot be argued that this was a natural and even 
healthy revolt against the insipid comedies of the time, for 
they too had their admirers and it was precisely the lack of 
wide public interest, the coarse taste of the people, which were 
responsible for the closing of the theatres. Good architecture 
can be forced on a nation, but not good drama; it scarcely 
matters how many people admire a public building, but a 
play cannot be performed to an empty house. Because the 
people preferred gladiatorial shows, all over the Empire 
amphitheatres were built Their very size proves their im- 
mense popularity. They were the first buildings designed for 
mass entertainment, for men and women who came not to 
be exalted but to be degraded. Bread and circuses, it was said, 
would keep the masses contented, and while Sicily provided 
the capital with bread, Rome allocated money for provincial 
circuses. The amphitheatre at Catania, a crumpled ruin 
under a deep layer of lava, proves that the entertainment was 
not exclusively reserved for the island's capital city. Where- 
ever large crowds could gather to air their discontents and 
perhaps foment trouble, an amphitheatre was erected to 
appease dangerous passions with a sterile diversion. 

Since Cicero does not notice it in his description of the city 
it is first mentioned by Valerius Maximus and Tacitus in the 
Augustan period the Syracusan amphitheatre must date from 
the end of that reign, for in the first years of the principate 
tiie Sicilian capital had fallen into such decay that Augustus 
was obliged to send out a colony. It was Nero, appropriately, 
who increased the number of gladiators at this amphitheatre, 
a generation after its construction. The work itself is on the 
purely pragmatic scale befitting a poor provincial town: 
grandeur and graceful lines were deemed less important 
than economy. On all sides except the south it has been 
hewn out of the Tenienite hill, and where necessary banks of 
earth have been heaped up to support the tiers. It thus re- 
sembles the amphitheatre at Pompeii rather than that at 


Nnnes, which is built up in a series of arches* The lowest 
tiers of seats, the podium, reserved for the leading spectators, 
is constructed in the Greek style, and the marble blocks 
which formed a back to the seats are still to be seen, each in- 
scribed with the seat-holder's name. The arena, like the tiers 
of seats, takes the very unsatisfactory form of an ellipse, 
seventy yards by forty, at the greater axis of which are two 
wide entrances. Beneath the lower tiers runs a low, vaulted 
passage in which the wild beasts were confined. In the centre 
of the arena is cut a large rectilinear recess, some six feet 
deep, communicating by means of subterranean channels 
with a large pond from which after the gladiatorial conflict 
water flowed to wash away the traces of carnage. The recess 
itself, filled with water, may have served to vary the usual 
bloody routine: hippopotami and crocodiles may have been 
confined here to be engaged by gladiators in small boats, or 
minor sea battles may have been fought in the fashion that 
Nero made popular. 

The usual spectacle was neither pretty nor edifying. Slaves 
armed with swords were set against hungry wild beasts: 
lions, tigers, and wild boar. The gladiator, by his skill and 
daring, attempted to provide sufficient diversion to win the 
crowd's applause; as a reward for which the proconsul, sit- 
ting in the position of honour, might very occasionally grant 
him his life and liberty. Oftener he was wounded in the 
combat, permanently maimed or so mangled that he had to 
be thrown to the waiting beasts to stimulate their appetite. 
Whether the human or animal elements conquered, the spec- 
tators had their fill of blood. If the gladiator triumphed they 
identified themselves with their hero; if he was devoured 
they derived a sadistic pleasure from the spectacle. In either 
case they were degraded to the level of beasts. Hour after 
hour the show continued, its crudities repeated with little 
variation, until the spectators were at last surfeited. The 
bloodshed ended, they trooped home to relive its horrors 
until the day of the next performance. Not all, however. 
The infirm and sick, epileptics and cripples tumbled down 


the tiers into the arena to suck warm blood from the car- 
casses and to pluck out the livers from the wild beasts, hoping 
thereby to infuse new life into their own decaying bodies. It 
was the summit of their participation, the climax of a sickly 

That same formation of limestone in which the Romans 
cut their amphitheatre served as the city of the Christian 
dead* Seven hundred years after Dionysius had quarried 
stone there on a mammoth scale the Christians began to bur- 
row into the grey rock and after the fashion of moles to 
construct a subterranean metropolis* They were not pioneers 
in the underground regions beneath the sloping hill of Acra- 
dina. Already the Greeks had pierced the rock with a net- 
work of subterranean aqueducts, graceful constructions,, their 
cross-section similar to a lancet window, high enough to 
allow a man to pass with head and shoulders slightly bent. 
Terracotta pipes carried water through these passages to the 
mainland city, and perhaps also to Ortygia, for natural 
springs could not be relied upon in time of siege. The cata- 
combs were constructed under the ruins of former Greek 
buildings, for by Christian times Syracuse had declined from 
one of the greatest cities of antiquity to an unimportant town 
and contracted into its original island stronghold of Ortygia. 
They were sited about a mile outside Syracuse to the north: 
borial closer to the city being prohibited by the Roman 
authorities. The earliest were simply private vaults, where 
members of the family and close friends were buried to- 
gether, sometimes in the grounds of a villa, sometimes in a 
piece of land belonging to the family. The original cata- 
combs were therefore simple and restricted: a subterranean 
passage hewn out of tie rock, on either side of which bodies 
wore placed in niches and cemented over with a terracotta 
plaque, Wherever possible, they followed the line of disused 
aqueducts, merely widening the gallery to allow free pas- 
sage. At this early stage, in the second and third centuries, 
IK> attempt was made to elaborate or decorate: the passage 
had a purely functional purpose. The highest niches on both 


sides were the first to be used as tombs; later,, when all the wall 
space had been exhausted, the catacomb was made deeper to 
provide additional room, and where this was impossible tombs 
were cut in the floor itself. As these private burial grounds 
extended and became more numerous, one would pass above 
another, or meet and join a neighbouring passage, so that a 
complex network was formed on several levels. 

In the Syracusan catacombs of Villa Cassia and S. Maria 
di Gesti, which date from the earliest period, passages run 
at all angles, irregular as a tangled skein of wool The ceil- 
ings are low and straight, the sides narrow, and stretching 
from darkness into darkness deeper still the empty tombs, 
row upon row, gape like the jaws of a toothless skull. Very 
rarely does the terracotta plaque still cover the tomb, for 
these burial grounds have been plundered by a succession of 
pirates. It is still possible, however, to come across a newly 
excavated wing in which the tombs are closed. Instead of 
the skeletal and deeply eroded aspect of the looted catacombs, 
such a passage has the appearance of any straight seam in a 
quarry, the cement blending in colour with the stone ceiling 
and floor. Occasionally these tombs are decorated with fres- 
coes. On the side of one niche are pictures of Jonah being 
thrown overboard by two stout mariners, and of Daniel in 
the lions' den, while on the opposite wall is a fresco of a 
donkey, which may have formed part of an Entry into Jeru- 
salem. The commonest subject is that painted beneath the 
terracotta plaque of this same tomb, two peacocks on either 
side of a vase; the peacock with its fine tail feathers symbolis- 
ing the soul and the vase from which it is drinking eternal 
life. In another picture Our Lord is placing the crown of life 
on the head of a girl, presumably the occupant of the tomb, 
while an apostle stands on either side. Heaven is symbolised 
by a few flowers; birds in the interstices denote the peace o 
death. These frescoes are direct and simple statements in the 
Roman style, executed in red, green, and blue, colours bold 
enough to stand out even in the dim galleries. In the light of 
day they appear crude work, but they were never meant to 


see the light of day; by the flickering glow of an oil lamp 
they are adequate for their purpose. No coffins were used at 
that time: the dead body, wrapped in a piece of linen, was 
laid directly in the rock, in imitation of Our Lord's burial, 
while cement effectively sealed the tomb. The number of 
small niches, cut for babies and small children, is perhaps as 
much as a quarter of the total: evidence of conditions among 
the early Christians of a provincial town. 

If it is a doubtful hypothesis that the Christians of that time 
were mostly of the poorer classes, the catacombs of Syracuse 
at least provide no evidence to the contrary. Certainly there 
is nothing in these passages to suggest wealth or even a 
moderate sensibility. The pagan sarcophagi of Greek and 
Roman times, by contrast, show a refinement of taste lacking 
in these crude vaults. A certain structural improvement, 
however, does appear in the catacombs of S. Giovanni, which 
were constructed between the fourth and sixth centuries, in 
a less urgent period when persecution on a large scale had 
ceased. The form of the passages is quite different: the ceiling 
is higher and arched, the width considerably greater, while 
the ground-plan takes the form of a criss-cross pattern, which 
shows that the catacomb was designed as a whole according 
to the plan of a Roman city. The largest gallery, the decu- 
inanus maximus, obtained by widening a Greek aqueduct, 
Is intersected by many minor passages and capped by five 
rotonde, round domed spaces some ten feet in diameter, 
which perhaps served as chapels for requiem mass on the day 
of burial. Most of them were constructed by enlarging exist- 
ing wells, the opening of which admits sufficient light to 
penetrate the adjacent corridors. Tombs are spaced round 
the Walls of these rotonde^ but if altars once stood in the 
centime, they have long since been overthrown. These are the 
^aofo-Mlls which provide communication between the dark 
xrarmis and the upper world. In the later catacombs, niches in 
la^sers along the walls are less common: instead there are re- 
cesses leading off the passage at regular intervals, where tombs 
are ranged one behind another, as many as twenty deep. Since 


the catacombs had by now become public burial grounds, 
members of a family were buried side by side in this fashion, 
the first tomb to be cut being the one nearest the passage, and 
the recess being gradually extended as need arose. It must have 
been a difficult matter to bury reverently bodies in the far- 
thest part, for there is no alleyway beside the tombs, and the 
alcove is so low that even to have crawled above the other 
tombs would have been awkward. 

Some of the few remaining inscriptions are cut below a 
niche in these catacombs. In the centre is the sign ^ with 
an alpha and omega on either side; to the right is a curious 
boat which is also a bird; the prow being marked with a large 
eye and turned upwards in the shape of a beak. Hovering 
above the beak is a small round disc marked with the same 
sign as the one in the centre of the tomb. Below the first boat is 
another, so worn as almost to be indistinguishable. These are 
evidently emblems of the soul's journey to the next world, 
the disc representing viaticum. The boat (or bird) represents 
a curious mixture of ideas, and the fact that all the small 
fishing-boats of Sicily have an eye painted on either side of 
the prow, so that they look like animals (whether bird or 
monster is uncertain), suggests that the boat could stand both 
for the journey and the traveller. Such symbols, the most 
important of which was the fish, originated in Greece and 
their wide adoption in Rome and elsewhere was perhaps due 
to the fact that they constituted a useful secret language, 
undecipherable by the authorities during times of persecu- 
tion. Such inscriptions are, however, rare in the catacombs 
at Syracuse; in general the name of the dead person was 
crudely cut on the terracotta plaque, a sententious phrase 
occasionally being added. 

Christianity had revealed that the only offering worthy of 
God was God Himself: finished were the days when Daeda- 
lus had presented a votive offering of gold to the being he 
believed divine. Yet the Church, if she had refused his 
honeycomb under one aspect, accepted and perfected it under 
another. The first tentative signs of that acceptance are 


scattered around the catacombs, obscure and wasted by time: 
the peeling symbolic frescoes, here a fish, there a bird, testi- 
monials that these first Christians wanted to devote their 
artistic skill, however inadequately, to the greater glory of 

Only one object of beauty was rescued from the catacombs 
of S- Giovanni: the sarcophagus of Valerius and Adelphia, 
dating from the fourth or fifth century. This had been 
removed from its original niche and buried in the catacomb 
floor, where it escaped the attention of barbarians and Arabs 
bent on loot It is a rectangular white marble sarcophagus 
with a lid, in a perfect state of preservation, both the front of 
the casket and the lid being carved with great artistry. Dom- 
inating the other carvings, in the centre, is a round medallion 
depicting Adelphia and her husband Valerius holding his 
symbols of office. The fact that he was a Roman official may 
explain so costly a mode of burial, in striking contrast to the 
tombs of other contemporary Christians. In horizontal rows 
on the lid and front are carved scenes from the Old and New 
Testaments, in no discernible order: Adam and Eve, the Entry 
into Jerusalem, Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac and other 
graphic incidents. The expressions are not very convincing, 
perhaps because of the miniature scale of the work, and 
there is a static quality about the scenes of action. The most 
curious feature, however, is that in all cases the bodies are 
too small for the heads: in consequence, the figures look like 
dwarfs or precocious children. This regressive characteristic 
of the carving appears, though to a less pronounced degree, 
in Carolingian work and even in some of the capitals in the 
cloister at Monreale, executed some seven centuries later 
striking evidence of the poverty of invention during and 
immediately after the barbarian invasions. The figure of 
Christ is distinguished neither by a halo nor by any special 
physical characteristic, and since the scenes are not clearly 
separated one from another, the sarcophagus lacks any strik- 
ing immediate effect and has to be slowly deciphered. In its 
fadbion, however, it is an object of beauty and, if it was 


executed by a Syracusan, probably many similar coffins have 
been lost to vandals. Others may still lie concealed, for only 
a small part of the catacombs has been excavated, miles of 
corridors still remaining unexplored for lack of funds. Only 
the catacombs of S. Giovanni have been completely un- 
earthed since serious digging was started seventy years ago, 
and all the tombs so far discovered number only a few 
thousand, whereas at Rome, the only city which possesses 
catacombs more extensive than those at Syracuse, it has 
been found that many millions of Christians were buried 
in the underground passages. At Syracuse, unlike Rome, 
there are no distinct chapels leading off the passages and, 
apart from the crypt of S. Marziano, at the entrance to the 
catacombs, no basilicas. It is unlikely, therefore, that they 
were ever used as hiding-places during the persecutions; they 
retained always their original purpose as burial sites. 

One of the meanings of these subterranean hieroglyphics, 
these winding passages cut into the rock, is that the Church 
did not yet dare to build above ground. If they were not 
actually used as hiding-places during times of persecution, 
the dark galleries could have served that purpose excellently. 
At a time when all was uncertain and shifting, life and death 
dependent on an emperor's whim, when whole peoples were 
migrating and civilisations collapsing, the very conditions of 
existence were precarious, and the vital inner life, the faith 
itself and its practices, more vulnerable still. To build a 
church today was to leave ruin tomorrow; to parade the faith 
was to invite reprisals. Yet all the while the Church was 
growing underground, managing somehow to preserve unity 
among its widespread members, spreading out extensive 
mining-works under the barbarian cities, which, in course of 
time, were to fall in beyond restitution. The catacombs are 
links in that chain of mining-works : proof of persistent and 
thankless resistance, a stonewall defence against the shifting 
hesitancy of the age. They show, too, that concern with the 
past and with tradition which is the mark of an eternal institu- 
tion. Insignificant boys and girls, who happened to die for 


their faith, were not forgotten : never before in history had 
spiritual greatness received reverence and honour, never be- 
fore had worldly defeat and ignominy been reckoned fortun- 
ate conditions. In the caves, where spiritual man was going 
through a primitive phase with mental equipment as poor as 
the flints and bronze of neolithic man, the relics of martyrs 
provided tangible proof that it was possible to succeed. Such 
conditions were not without advantages. These early Chris- 
tians were close in time to the Word: their grandfathers had 
perhaps listened to S. Paul preaching at Syracuse, and there- 
fore the fundamental virtues of their religion were orders to be 
loyally obeyed. They had not yet been quibbled out of exis- 
tence or spun into aspects of the unconscious mind : they were 
neither hereditary qualities nor dependent on environment, 
but straightforward commandments. Moreover, since these 
outcasts were leading a separate life, a hard and fast line 
divided them from the pagan majority: there was no great 
danger of gradually, imperceptibly compromising with the 
world. Again, the scrawled inscriptions on the tombstones 
of die catacombs, the simple frescoes and decorative devices, 
show that the truth was deemed sufficient in itself: beside it 
all human creations, crude or fine, were as nothing. 

Yet the paramount difficulty lay precisely in this, that often 
the truth was hidden. Were these words to be used or those? 
Did orthodoxy lie in the genitive or dative case ? In a Church 
that made appeal to tradition, a multitude of new problems 
was continually arising which could not be settled in this 
way, for no tradition had yet arisen regarding them. Time 
and organic growth would one day furnish a court of appeal, 
but meanwhile communication between scattered bishoprics 
was imperative for orthodoxy. At this crucial moment the 
i>ad>arians swept down, turning the Mediterranean into a 
paradise for pirates and cutting off the young churches one 
fe>m another. Thus pagan rites were sometimes carried on 
locally and later, with growing centralisation, had to be 
deiK>unced as heretical. 

The ancients, for example, used to smear the newborn 


infant's lips with honey as a preservative, and this custom 
was carried over to their mystery cults, whose new initiates 
were given milk and honey as a sign of rebirth. Christianity 
adapted the existing symbolism to its own use. The custom 
in the early Church was to present mixed milk and honey 
to newly baptised persons after they had left the font. Dur- 
ing the special Mass said for them, wine mixed with water, 
milk, and honey was consecrated, and the neophyte received 
a chalice of milk and honey as a foretaste of eternal life. The 
custom was discontinued after the sixth century, clearly be- 
cause the addition of other offerings impinged on the pre- 
eminent position in the Mass of bread and wine, but during 
the centuries when the catacombs were in use honey must 
have been given to the newly baptised Christians just as it 
was to many contemporary worshippers of false gods. 

This adaptation of what was good in pagan rites was also 
carried over to the realm of art and architecture. The cathe- 
dral at Syracuse was built by a Greek tyrant five hundred 
years before the birth of Christ: so intermingled are the civi- 
lisations of Sicily, so daring their cross-fertilisation. The 
Doric temple dedicated to Athena, which Gelon built to com- 
memorate his victory at Himera, was transformed into a 
Christian church by S. Zosimus, bishop of Syracuse in the 
seventh century, and since that time has been the mother 
church of the oldest of all dioceses after Antioch. Sicily is full 
of churches which incorporate elements of Greek or Roman 
temples, but nowhere is the original more evident than at 
Syracuse. Almost the whole structure, including two lines of 
broad-based, fluted columns, is Greek, so that the newcomer 
believes himself in a temple before he discovers that he is 
in a church. Something about the building is known from 
Cicero's speech against Verres, for although Syracuse was 
one of the few cities which did not identify itself with the 
provincial complaint against the Roman governor, Cicero 
accused Verres of having despoiled the building. The walls 
were decorated with paintings of the kings and tyrants of 
Sicily, the doors were of ivory and gold and on top of the 


pediment hung the goddess's golden shield. This bright 
object served as a point of orientation to Sicilian sailors: set- 
ting out from the Great Harbour of Syracuse they used to 
watch the shield gradually lose identity in the mass of the 
Iblean mountains; when its gleaming rays faded from sight 
they threw honey and incense on the waves, invoking the 
goddess to protect them on their journey. 

The temple of Athena was the glory of Syracuse, the city's 
landmark, a memorial to Sicily's greatest victory over the 
barbarian. Yet even this magnificent work did not rise as a 
wholly new construction: it has been discovered that an 
archaic temple, perhaps dating from pre-Hellenic times, pro- 
vided the foundations for Gelon's building. The roots of 
this grafted tree were therefore themselves originally dove- 
tailed into an older subterranean growth, and, as happened 
in so many other spheres, the Greek temple was christened 
in a Roman font Conquered by Greek art, the Romans 
were handed over as slaves to the Olympians. The gods of 
Homer and Hesiod, of Pheidias and Praxiteles, the gods and 
goddesses of the Greek temples were too overpowering to be 
resisted. Athena continued to be worshipped under the name 
of Minerva in the same building, under the same forms, 
until some time in the fourth century, when the dual pres- 
sure of growing Christianity and imperial decadence caused 
the Roman deities to cower in fear. A century later with the 
coming of the Vandals and the Goths they toppled from 
their altars: the temple at Syracuse was stripped of its valu- 
able ornaments and left desecrated and deserted. Finally 
Belisarius delivered Sicily to the Byzantine Empire, enabling 
Christianity to creep forth from the catacombs and suit the 
qmtpty temples to its purpose. 

This adaptation of a temple of Athena for Christian rites 
imposes itself as a figure of the Christian debt to Greece. Of 
the other early civilisations, in Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt 
and among the Hittites, were to be found mere crass super- 
stition, astrology and idolatry; their languages were awk- 
ward and unadapted for spiritual concepts; in such a close 


and rigid atmosphere Christianity could hardly have been 
understood, let done have flourished. In one country alone 
had the spirit of wonder, which Plato said was the beginning 
of all philosophy, broken the chains of superstition and 
magic, setting reason free to prepare the way for revelation. 
Within the framework of Greek civilisation, as within this 
temple of Athena, its broad-based, enduring columns sup- 
porting a lofty roof, Christianity was able suitably to express 

Art, no less than thought and language, was adapted to 
the service of the new religion. The time had not yet come 
to build anew, and S. Gregory the Great instructed bishops, 
wherever necessary, to take over existing temples, where die 
people, through long custom, naturally resorted, and, wrest- 
ing out the pagan idols, to replace them with the Christian 
God. When the Church did possess wealth and leisure 
enough to begin decorating and refining, it drew here as in 
so many other ways on the Greek tradition, so that the con- 
tinuity to be observed in Sicilian art all the way through the 
pagan centuries is carried on by the new dispensation. Just 
as the cathedral at Syracuse is an adaptation of a Doric 
temple, which in turn is based on prehistoric foundations, so 
the artistic tradition which is believed to have originated with 
Daedalus crosses the moment when eternity entered time and 
persists to this day. Since Christianity does not scorn to use 
the themes and forms which once served pagan religions, 
it will be possible to search for Daedalus' s honeycomb, 
whether it be artefact or paradigm, through Christian no 
less than pagan centuries; indeed, whatever the original turns 
out to be, it may well appear more evident in a form per- 
fected and fulfilled by Christianity, as part of some place and 
civilisation hallowed by the new faith. 



THE scene now changes from the city of Syracuse to a lonely 
countryside, and the task of sifting Sicily's past for gold is 
resumed in a Roman palace, built at a time when the cata- 
combs were being hollowed out of the limestone rock at Syra- 
cuse. Thus there is no advance in time: but the light instead 
of playing on the birth of a world religion illuminates for a 
moment a dying national cult 

Not for from the mean town of Piazza Armerina, near the 
centre of the island, hovels give way to hazelwoods beside 
the river Gela like all Sicilian rivers, in springtime no more 
than a stream, but capable in October of swelling to torrential 
proportions amid wooded country, soft and undulating. 
Here, in the fourth century, sheltered by hills, stood a palace, 
and here today lie the ruins of Casale. For a millennium 
they ky buried under layers of sand brought down by the 
flooded river, and it was only yesterday that they came to 
light: treasure directly mined from the hillside, jewels taken 
fully formed from the earth. 

The palace was conceived on a grand scale, for although 
the work of excavation is still incomplete, the site would 
already serve for a cathedral. Roman baroque columns with 
elaborate capitals form an arcade, beside which is a three- 
apsed triclinium, and a number of smaller rooms. The walls, 
the roof, the ornaments, were all swept away by the flooded 
river; they have fallen and perished, but the glory of the 
place remains, for its chief riches were buried in the ground 
in the mosaic floors which pave the whole extent of the 
building. One comes upon them quite unexpectedly, almost 
at one's feet: it is an unusual experience to find masterpieces 



lying on the ground. For it is at once evident, from the 
scale, colour and grouping of these pavements, that they are 
productions of nothing less than unique achievement. There 
they lie open to the sky, like a great intricately devised gar- 
den of many-coloured flowers, a garden planted in Roman 
times, which is flowering a second time in a second mil- 

The first great tableau rises suddenly out of the ground to 
stretch in unbroken line for almost a hundred yards. This 
passageway depicts a number of interrelated scenes from 
country life, in particular hunting incidents, but it is diffi- 
cult to see in them a complete unity. The pavement may 
well have been specially designed to commemorate events in 
the owner's life: certainly the subjects are not drawn from 
mythology. In one scene a peasant cart with solid wooden 
wheels is being drawn by oxen; in another a man on horse- 
back is going up the gangway of a small boat; the sea being 
symbolised instead of realistically depicted. This symbolism 
extends in some cases also to the subjects: a leopard stands 
above what appears to be a cave in which lies a miniature 
leopard cub; the face of a man snarls behind the bars of a 
cage held in the claws of a ferocious griffin. Both these scenes 
are complete in themselves, and if they had a private mean- 
ing for their owner, it has been lost for ever. Many of the 
scenes show wild animals attacking their prey: here a lion is 
at an antelope's throat; there a leopard advances on a sheep, 
all vital with movement and tension. In the apse at the end 
of the same corridor is depicted a seated, dark-skinned 
woman, holding a tusk of ivory, flanked by an elephant and 
a lion. Whether she is meant to personify Africa or India or 
some more hidden subject is difficult to say. But this obscu- 
rity instead of detracting from the interest of the mosaics 
gives them an urgent and challenging appeal, as though one 
had stumbled on a bottle at the seaside containing a letter in 
an unknown language. No divisions separate the various 
incidents, which are united only by their rustic subject- 
matter, so that the passage stretches continuously like a rich 


allegorical diagram in a medieval romance, telling its secret 
story to the sun and stars. The colours have retained their 
splendour, reds, yellows, browns, and greens predominating, 
preserved from the oppressive sun, like the wealth of ancient 
Egypt, by saving sand, buried alive to be suddenly resur- 
rected at this particular point of time. 

The theme of wild animals is resumed in the pavement of 
the quadrilateral arcade, of even longer extent than the intro- 
ductory passageway, but for the most part worked in abstract 
patterns, which the wild animals merely serve to decorate, 
In pairs, divided from one another and from the succeeding 
couples by an ornamental design, the heads of animals an 
extraordinary yariety, no two being the same stretch round 
the cloister, lions and tigers, wild boar and wolves, hippo- 
potami and hyenas, lizards and rats: the whole of creation as 
it was then known set out at man's feet. This dominant 
theme, together with the position of the villa in country 
which in Roman times was dense with woods and doubtless 
rich in game, suggests that the owner was a passionate hunter, 
so much so that he chose to build his permanent home in the 
wilds of Sicily, for this is too palatial a residence to have served 
merely as an occasional hunting-lodge. The larger wild 
animals depicted in the mosaics suggest that he had hunted 
game in Roman provinces of Africa: perhaps he preferred 
that form of sport and came expressly to this remote part 
because the country was wilder and better stocked than Italy. 

The remaining mosaics reveal a little more of his interests 
and even of his character. In one room, the least well pre- 
served, Orpheus with his lute charms trees, hills, and all the 
animal creation, which is arranged, in imaginative rather 
than stricdy evolutionary order, through the different species 
of birds and fish to the mammals. These are so clearly de- 
picted for their own sake, the mythological story being 
merely a device designed to unify the details, that the owner^ 
it seems certain, loved not only the chase but all animals in 
themselves, and delighted to be surrounded by pictures of 
them. One looks expectantly for the parallel figure of Daeda- 


but he is not depicted here: with Ms usual running, he 
has outwitted the mosaic-workers. 

Bulls and horses are added to the number of animals in the 
great pavement of the triclinium, which represents the 
labours of Hercules. The figures in this room are by far the 
largest in the villa, titanic forms that do indeed prove Her- 
cules a demi-god. To see them to advantage one must climb 
and look down on them: a circle of pictures shows the hero 
and a succession of different monsters locked in eternal 
struggle, the separate scenes well balanced and integrated to 
form a total pattern. In the apse of the same great hall are 
figures of five giants four of them with snakes instead of 
legs struggling in their death agony, pierced by the arrows 
of Jupiter. The expression of pain not only in every line of 
their faces but in the gestures with which they try to staunch 
their wounds, and the tortured, twisted muscles of their 
bodies are depicted in realistic detail and with a force which 
betrays the artist's impassioned interest. 

This fascination with struggle and with man or beast 
stretched to the limits of endurance, and the treatment of 
man as a natural animal of great strength and subtlety, can 
be traced in most of the mosaics. The subjects are straight- 
forward, never oblique or brooding, seeking adventure and 
most at home in outdoor life. The gods are treated as strong 
men with fine bodies, brave and resourceful, but in no sense 
supernatural. The technical form is in complete harmony 
with the subject matter. Realism as regards movement, 
struggle and action; symbolism in respect of background 
and, occasionally, of certain subjects; very litde imaginative 
detail, no rigidity or stylisation among the figures, no exoti- 
cism of colour, a style adapted to straightforward narrative 
rather than to nuances of expression. At this level they totally 
succeed: they tell their story vividly, with style and harmony, 
without blurring subject and background, without losing 
coherence by trying to say too much. If they lack the fresh 
naivety of later mosaics such as those in the Cappella Paktina, 
they compensate for it with a boundless energy, and if they 


lack the golden background which suffuses the Byzantine 
works with light, their colours catch the full brilliance of an 
unsheltered sun. They delight in being true to nature, and 
turn sharp observation of the animal world to good account 
in pictures which are astonishingly graphic; beside them the 
Byzantine figures seem static and rigid: the emphasis there 
being on expression and gentle gesture, not on the snarling 
mouth and tensed muscle. In their general atmosphere, also, 
these mosaics afford a striking contrast to the Christian, 
works. To come suddenly upon these Roman pavements, the 
hunters and the hunted, the tortured giants, is to return to a 
world where man is still a wild animal, superior to, but not 
totally distinct from other animals, to a world where there is 
no kw but the law of the jungle. The Christian pictures, on 
the other hand, find order in everything, because they see all 
human action as a continuation of a particular sequence of 
events having infinite importance. The Roman mosaics are 
totally anthropocentric, the others totally theocentric. This 
appears, for example, in the treatment of animals. In the 
pagan work they are ferocious wild beasts, in one aspect 
killers of each other and of man, in another objects of diver- 
sion and sport, creatures to be hunted down for the ban- 
queting board. The Christian mosaics, on the other hand, 
whether in the scenes of the Creation or in Noah's ark, show 
all animals as God's creatures, to be respected for His sake, 
to be studied as signs of His will. 

The most fundamental advance, however, is from one 
order of reality to another. The Roman pavements depict 
natural, tangible and visual qualities, strength of limb and 
beauty of body, while the Christian pictures attempt the far 
harder task of representing the inner life, that other world 
which through the Christian revolution had come to be taken 

the true centre of the universe. These mosaics are perhaps 
last pagan achievement in Sicily executed under the old 
dispensation. Although they date from the Christian era, 
the new religion had not been received as a spiritual climate 
with which every artist, either by accepting or denying, 


would have to reckon. The mythology of the subjects is 
already outmoded: there is a hollow ring about the music of 
Orpheus. Because all truth in the last decades of the Western 
Roman Empire is relative, the symbolism is private: the wild 
animals are poised to strike: Europe is on the point of revert- 
ing to barbarism. Eight centuries will elapse before Sicily 
again produces comparable works of mosaic, masterpieces 
with an eternal significance and dedicated to a purpose very 
cliff erent from that of the pavements of Casale. 

If the palace is primarily a world of heroes and wild 
animals, it is not exclusively so. One small room, a bedroom 
perhaps, departs completely from the dominant theme, and 
yet its subject has always, in aristocratic society, formed a 
complement to hunting. Beautiful women, in this mosaic, 
are playing with discus and ball and with weights; running 
and jumping, not frivolously, as maidens on Greek vases are 
often represented, but seriously intent on making their fine 
bodies lovelier still. It is surprising at first that they should 
be gymnasts: one would have expected rather languorous 
creatures clad in silk and reclining on couches. Yet under 
this form, they do, after all, harmonise with the hunters: 
arms and legs capably strong, and like the wild beasts poised 
to spring. They are women in a man's world, adapting them- 
selves to his ideals, but also in a world where man is merely 
one among many strong beasts. Their faces are portrayed with 
little detail, for it is their bodies which chiefly interest the 
artist: well-formed, tall and graceful, naked except for two of 
the briefest cloths, they are the female equivalent of the 
hunters fine animals adapted to a specific purpose. But these 
figures are in no sense decadent, as their scanty clothing 
might indicate. There is no excessive pre-occupation with the 
body as something desirable in itself, no diminishing of the 
size of the head: these portraits were products of a vigorous 
society, energetic, graceful, perhaps not over-concerned with 
the spiritual Hf e, but certainly not indifferent to it. 

Aphrodite is dead: the ideal goddess of beauty has been 
superseded by this plurality of particular girls, portrayed on 


a pavement where the feet o huntsmen can trample them 
down* The communal links, the old patriotism which 
directed and sublimated men's sentiments towards a lofty 
Venus who protected the state and from whom all Romans 
were descended, has fallen to pieces; and the old idea has 
run to seed in this bevy of bathing beauties. The world now 
is a world of flux, where no single ideal or person can remain 
constant for very long, for such girls as these are multiple and 
changing as those on the covers of present-day magazines. 
The Roman Empire is on the verge of collapse: soon the 
barbarians will pour down from the North as far as Sicily, 
and the Africans whom Rome has twice held at bay will 
seize their opportunity to bestride the island for two hundred 

Can these mosaics, before they are engulfed by invading 
hordes, throw light on Diodorus's story ? Taken with preced- 
ing works of art in Sicily, they do suggest the beginnings of 
a pattern in the carpet, a clue to the meaning of the legend. 
Not only these pavements, but the temple of Athena, the 
statue of Aphrodite, the theatre at Taormina, the splendours 
of Agrigento and the ruins of Selinus: every work of 
art extending back to the Minoan sherds at Lipari has 
been fashioned in foreign moulds. Looking forward, this 
characteristic would remain equally distinctive: Normans, 
Swabians, Spaniards, and Italians would in turn bring to 
Sicily their own particular artistic forms, each people dis- 
daining to work in the modes set by its predecessor. The 
astonishing continuity of thought and theme and subjectfmat- 
ter is offset by a total lack of formal continuity, as this palace 
bears witness. Here the Romans, content elsewhere and in 
other artistic fields to imitate Greek work, asserted their own 
civilisation in the mosaic art-form which they had brought 
to perfection. Each succeeding tide of invaders washed up a 
new style on the shores of Sicily, high-water marks which are 
viable still, alien and distinctive. Each invader has repeated 
the story of Daedalus, who, coming from a distant land, 
introduced to Sicily new and marvellous forms of art. If 


Diodorus saw the original story of Daedalus as the embodi- 
ment of certain constants in the pattern of Sicilian art down 
to his day, then the legend was at least in one respect to prove 
prophetic over an even longer period of years. 

What then has so far emerged from the quest? Erice was 
the point of departure, but neither there nor at Agrigento 
could traces be found of an actual honeycomb of gold. 
Selinus suggested one possible interpretation that Daedalus 
brought to Sicily the craft of bee-keeping- but this reading 
was rejected as unsatisfactory. Etna proved a turning- 
point, for there it became clear that the legend might have 
to be interpreted more widely: the original honeycomb was 
perhaps something more permanently significant than a mere 
gift of gold. The carts and puppets tended to substantiate 
a historical Daedalus and so too did the Cretan sherds at 
Lipari, while the gold coins and the statue of Aphrodite at 
Syracuse suggested that Daedalus's offering stood rather for 
art in general, including poetry, symbolised by a honeycomb 
on the poet's lips. 'With the coming of Christianity Greek 
art forms were carried over and utilised for religious ends, 
thus showing that Diodorus's story held true for the Chris- 
tian as well as the pagan era. Now Casale has revealed that 
each invading people has played the part of Daedalus, bring- 
ing new forms to the island. It remains to be seen whether 
a more complete view of Sicily will arrange these clues into 
a solution of the original legend. 


Norman Palermo 

WITH the decay of the Roman Empire, Sicily fell into a 
period of decline which is reflected in a dearth of new art. 
Its position as an island protected it for some time against 
the barbarian invasions, but in the fifth century it finally 
yielded to the Vandals. Not, however, for long. A century 
later Belisarius rescued it for the Eastern Empire, and there 
began a period of five centuries under Oriental rule, first by 
the Greeks of Byzantium, and in the ninth century by the 
Arabs, driven across the entire Mediterranean as far as France 
by enthusiasm for a new religion. Arab rule was tolerant of 
Christianity but in other respects made of the island a typical 
emirate. Palermo, as under the Carthaginians, became the 
capital of the island, a pre-eminence which the Norman 
kings, when they swooped gloriously down in the eleventh 
century, recognised and confirmed. For a hundred and fifty 
years the Normans turned Palermo into one of the great cities 
of the world, expressing their wealth and crusading faith in 
a riot of churches. But when the crown of Sicily passed to 
the Swabian Frederick II, and was later assigned by the 
Papacy to the Angevin and Spanish kings, Palermo no longer 
reflected the pattern of Sicilian life. During these turbulent 
years the arts were the arts of war, to be seen best in a fortress 
town like Enna. 

In 1409 the island became a dependency of Spain, receiving 
a viceroy as governor: with a settled way of life and a wealthy 
aristocracy, Palermo again takes pride of place as the leading 
and representative city of the island. The chief works of art 
continue to be concentrated here, except for a period after 
the catastrophic earthquake of 1693, which laid south-east 



Sicily in ruins. Towns such as Ragusa, Modica and Note 
were then rebuilt almost in their entirety, ttnd it is there, 
during the years after the Peace of Utrecht, when Sicily was 
assigned away from Spain, that the pattern of contemporary 
life is most evident. 

Soon, however, the balance shifts back to Palermo; it was 
in the capital city that Nelson, who guarded the island from 
Napoleon, took up residence. Now, as under the Norman 
kings, Englishmen were to play a large part in shaping 
Sicily's destiny. Another Englishman, Lord William Ben- 
tinck, gave Sicily her first constitution which, although in 
force for only three years, fired the liberal revolutions of 
1848 and 1860, and it was again British support which made 
possible Garibaldi's final liberation of the island. 

In 1860 Sicily voted to be annexed to Italy. Like a satellite 
she was finally drawn within the orb of the larger body and 
absorbed. Yet there was nothing new in this Sicilian history 
is a continual series of variations on one or two themes for 
in the Roman Empire the island played much the same part 
as she was now to do under the Italian kings. Unwilling sub- 
servience gave way in the name of a revolutionary ideal to 
voluntary surrender of the rights of self-government, but the 
country was still to suffer from the oppression and neglect 
which have characterised her history since the days when 
Homer referred to Sicily as a source of slaves. But now insur- 
rection was no longer possible one cannot with logic rebel 
against a freely-elected government and Sicily was forced 
to accept the fact that it was her destiny to suffer. 

Such is the historical thread which will lead through time 
and place, pointing a sure way across an island where differ- 
ent periods of history, because they are still living, tend to 
merge and beguile. After Casale the search continues in the 
wake of the Norman conquerors. Their art, as well as their 
way of life, drew heavily on the Arab and Byzantine tradi- 
tions which, in the course of five centuries, had become well 
established, so that while there are practically no works still 
extant in Sicily which can be dated between the fall of the 


Roman Empire and the Norman invasion, the Oriental style 
and excellence are easily distinguishable in the later exotic 
mixture termed Sicilian-Norman art, which finds its most 
perfect expression in and around Palermo. 

The story of Palermo as a great European city begins in 
Normandy, in the village of Hauteville, between Coutances 
and St Lo. The seed which flowered in the heat of the Medi- 
terranean as the capital city of a great kingdom, crowned 
with some of the most sumptuous ornaments ever fashioned, 
originated in a group of mean, grey farms clustered in a green 
valley where the sun is never too warm. In this village lived 
a petty seigneur called Tancred, of Scandinavian origin, one 
of the numerous Vikings who had populated this region of 
France since the tenth century and given it a reputation for 
independence and resistance to Christianity. Tancred had 
twelve sons by two successive wives, and since their father 
possessed only a modest property the three eldest decided to 
travel and make their fortune. At that time Italy, contested 
by Germany, the Papacy and the Greek Empire, offered 
greatest opportunity to young soldiers, and so the three 
brothers, with a party of other Normans, rode south to Italy 
in search of wealth and glory, just as their forefathers had 
swept down on France a century before. 

They fought first against the Greeks and then against rival 
Italian princes, always with great distinction, and soon man- 
aged, in the ebb and flow of continual war, to obtain princi- 
palities for themselves. Their prodigious military success, 
now and hereafter, was largely accounted for by their use of 
the stirrup, which had been introduced to northern Europe 
a century earlier. This device permitted the Normans to 
wear extremely heavy armour, which rendered their bodies 
almost invulnerable, while from horseback they were able 
to use lance and battleaxe to advantage on the usually un- 
mounted enemy. Their appearance has been portrayed for 
all time in the scenes of the Bayeux tapestry, which 
chronicles an exactly contemporary invasion. Their armour 
was matched by proverbial physical strength. Thus, one of 


the Norman knights, Hugues Tue-boeuf , a comradc-in-anns 
of the Hauteville brothers, once took the horse of an enemy 
general by the bridle, caressed the animal's head and sud- 
denly, clenching his fist, gave the horse such a tremendous 
blow between the eyes that it fell dead on the spot. Such 
armed might had not been seen in the Mediterranean since 
early Roman days. 

Having established their power in Apulia, the Normans 
were on the point of losing their new-won principalities 
through rivalry when a sudden attack by the Papacy, fearful 
of the northern invaders, united them as never before. The 
Pope, having suffered defeat and unable to persuade either 
Germans or Greeks to drive out these upstart knights, was 
obliged to recognise their Italian fiefs in return for their 
respect of Papal territory. The farvenus had at last won 

While the conquest of Southern Italy was the work of 
many Norman knights in unison, the conquest of Sicily was 
the personal war of two of the younger sons of Tancred 
d'Hauteville, Robert and Roger, who at a later date followed 
their brothers south. Of Robert a contemporary chronicler 
wrote: "Homer says of Achilles that those who heard his 
voice seemed to hear the thundering shout of a great multi- 
tude, but it used to be said of this man that his battle-cry 
would turn back tens of thousands," while Roger was no less 
ambitious and gifted a general than his elder brother. Since 
expansion towards the north of Italy was not feasible, the 
younger Hautevilles, discontented with their principalities in 
Apulia and confident of their power to conquer against any 
odds, decided to attack Sicily. At that time the island, more 
than half Arab and as to the rest Greek, was ruled by three. 
Arab emirs, continually at war among themselves. While 
Robert was obliged to remain in Italy to suppress revolt among 
his dependent knights and to safeguard his possessions 
against the Papacy and the Germans, his younger brother 
conducted the Sicilian campaign. With no more than three 
hundred knights, against odds of a hundred to one, Roger 


harried the island for ten years in a succession of minor raids 
until in 1071 Robert was free to bring up large reinforce- 
ments, Palermo, the Arab capital, was captured and peace 

Robert and Roger divided the country between them. 
Robert was to be suzerain of the whole island and to keep 
Palermo, half of Messina and some land on the north coast; 
the rest, whether already conquered or not, was left to Roger 
with the title of Count of Sicily. Roger spent the next twenty 
years in conquering the southern part of the island and con- 
solidating what was already won by the construction of 
castles at strategic points. By showing religious tolerance and 
treating the Arab chiefs with honour, he was able to gain the 
goodwill of an alien people who, having for centuries been 
subject to a succession of foreign conquerors, were willing to 
accept still another new power without national roots. His 
attitude of religious tolerance did not prevent Roger from 
doing his utmost to restore Christianity: he established 
bishoprics, settled monks from oversea and girdled the island 
with churches. After forty years of continuous war and ten 
years of peace and stabilisation, Roger died peacefully in his 
bed. His brothers had come south as simple mercenaries and 
against the three greatest powers of their age had become 
rulers of a vast, rich, and populous country; he himself, lack- 
ing birth and wealth, had followed them a distance of two 
thousand miles from his native land; he had virtually single- 
handed conquered an island of alien civilisation and several 
million inhabitants, establishing his power so solidly that his 
dynasty was to endure for over a century. 

Roger II, the first Hauteville to assume the title of King of 
Sicily, was no less active a warrior than his father. He re- 
united under Ms power all the Norman possessions of South- 
cm Italy, conquered part of the North African coast and 
madie several punitive expeditions against the Greek Empire. 
But he was more than a brave warrior: he had been born in 
a court and raised by the most civilised of tutors. He loved art 
as much as battle and among other services to learning he 


caused the writings of Ptolemy to be translated from the 
Arabic into Latin, supervised the compilation of a geography 
of the world, transferred the bones of Virgil from Posillipo 
to the Castel dell'Ovo in Naples in order that they might 
more fittingly be venerated, and called jongleurs and trouba- 
dours from France to sing in his southern kingdom. Edrisi, 
his court geographer, says lie did more while sleeping than 
most men awake, anda contemporary chronicler writes, " He 
was a lover of justice and a most severe avenger of crime. He 
abhorred lying; did everything by rule and never promised 
what he did not mean to perform. Justice and peace were 
universally observed throughout his dominions." Romuald 
of Salerno describes him as tall, well-built with a loud voice 
and inflexible gaze, but a mosaic in the church of the Mar- 
torana at Palermo depicts him as a frail ascetic, with dark 
eyes and hair and a small pointed beard. It is probable that 
the mosaic represents an Oriental ideal and that, like his 
father and sons, Roger was in reality strongly built and hand- 
some, with blond hair and blue eyes. 

At the accession of his son, William the Bad, the Sicilian 
kingdom goes into almost imperceptible decline. While King 
Roger had known how to value the good things of the East: 
Greek and Alexandrine science, Arab and Persian poetry, 
and combined this appreciation with a life of action, William, 
perhaps taking after his mother, a daughter of Alfonso VI 
of Castile, in whose family fratricides and incest were not 
uncommon, dabbled in oriental magic and astrology. He 
ruled through a variety of ministers, including Moslems, a 
Hungarian, two Englishmen, Walter of the Mill, Arch- 
bishop of Palermo, and Richard Palmer, Bishop of Syracuse, 
and above all the Italian Majone. The recurrent rebellions in 
Southern Italy were duly put down but with noticeably less 
speed and vigour than in the old days, as though the southern 
sun were sapping northern strength, and as soon as they had 
been suppressed William returned impatiently to his magk 
and cabals. 

Under his successor, William the Good, the HauteviUes 


suffered a major military defeat the first in a century of 
almost continuous war when a too ambitious expedition 
into Greece was cut to pieces. But this was as nothing to the 
diplomatic disaster of William's reign. In order to appease 
Germany, he gave his aunt Constance in marriage to Henry 
of Swabia and agreed that if he died without children Con- 
stance should inherit the Kingdom of Sicily: the hard-won 
island of the Hautevilles would enter into the patrimony of 
the Hohenstaufen, their life-long enemies. William was 
young and doubtless expected that the eventuality would 
never arise, but he died five years later without children. He 
is said to have lived in his pleasure palaces surrounded by 
Oriental slave girls; perhaps in a subtle way the Arabs had 
taken vengeance on the Hauteville dynasty. 

Sicily, in accordance with the treaty signed by William, 
should have entered at once into the German heritage but 
the people refused, as long as there was still a Hauteville 
living, to submit to German rule. Tancred, a bastard cousin 
of the dead king, a man described by his chronicler as "semi- 
vir, embryo infelix et detestabile monstrum," astonished the 
island by rising to its show of loyalty. Having gallantly re- 
pulsed the German armies, he established himself in the 
throne, only to fall sick and die. Henry of Swabia took pos- 
session of the island. The Norman state of Sicily and South- 
em Italy, founded a century and a half before by Robert and 
Roger, existed no longer. 

If the Normans were prodigious warriors, they were no 
less prodigious builders. Their rule is marked by the erec- 
tion of castles, churches and cathedrals all across the island, 
and of palaces and lodges in the neighbourhood of their 
capital city. They came as northern warriors, Christian but 
slightly barbarian, to one of the most civilised countries of 
the world, and the stability and wealth they brought with 
them permitted the orderly flowering of arts which until 
Am had languished amid civil wars. Just as the Norman 
kings recruited trustworthy ministers from all the peoples of 
the world, but especially from among the Arabs of Sicily, 

NORMAfT PAL&mH0 155 

adapting existing conditions to their particular requirements, 
so they commissioned local architects, painters, craftsmen 
and mosaic-workers, formerly employed in the building and 
decoration of mosques, to erect castles and churches under 
the new dispensation. Craftsmen attracted from all parts of 
the world to the new court still further increased the already 
cosmopolitan nature of Sicilian art. Indeed, so varied and 
complex is the Norman artistic achievement that it can be 
studied only in its individual buildings. 

Of their constructions in Palermo none had greater signi- 
ficance for the Norman kings than the Cathedral where 
Roger II, wearing the tiara, mantle and dalmatic of a Greek 
Basileus, was solemnly crowned first King of Sicily amid 
splendour and pomp a building which still dominates the 
capital city and, despite its deformation in modern times, 
remains one of the triumphs of Norman architecture. 

A fine building, like a large canvas, must be viewed from 
a considerable distance. In a city as old as Palermo, it is 
rarely that one can get far enough away from a church to see 
it whole: but the adjacent houses, grouped as close as the 
crowds milling in the streets, allow a full view, on one side 
at least, of the Cathedral. Half way up the Corso Vittorio 
Emanuele the right side of the street gives way as though 
stage scenery had suddenly been removed to reveal the back- 
cloth of sky and garden, and beyond a long mass of stone 
which in the present light seems quite fawn. Not fawn, for 
it is evident almost at once, as the sun plays truant from the 
clouds, that the walls are volatile, ranging in mood from 
a dark earth-coloured brown to an almost golden luminosity, 
and this changing colour of the walls makes the building 
appear, as the clouds close in, now a sister of the surround- 
ing mountains, now a creature of the sky and sun. 

It is the changing colour of the stone which first of all 
startles and holds the attention; only after a little while does 
the eye wander to take account of form. In general appear- 
ance the cathedral is that strange mixture of Norman and 
Byzantine which is so peculiar to the island: the crenellated 


roof and arabesque mouldings on the side walls contrasting 
with the rounded arches of the apse and the finely wrought 
tracery of the towers at the four corners. The dome in the 
centre is so clearly a later addition that there is no question 
of its belonging. It crowns the great fawn mass in colour 
partially yellow, partially dark brown, a cupola without any 
of the strength of the main building a mere imposition. It 
is as though the architect, the Florentine Ferdinand Fuga, 
who designed the dome in his dotage, had twice tried to sing 
the right note and failed, reaching once too high and once 
too low. This eighteenth-century addition was meant to 
break the extremely long straight line of the nave; the in- 
tention was praiseworthy but by then men had forgotten 
how to build as the Normans built. Or was the dome per- 
haps a deliberate attempt at improvement? Fuga may well 
have been convinced that he could redeem the barbarous nor- 
thern building which Archbishop Walter of the Mill had 
founded six centuries before. But the attempt fails hope- 
lessly, just as the late cupola at Bayeux Cathedral fails, yet 
without being sufficiently incongruous to spoil the whole. 

The apse is flanked by two twelfth-century towers, rising 
only a few feet above the line of the crenellated roof. The 
Gothic facade, flanked by twin towers similar to those of 
the apse, is a pastiche of all the decorative devices used by 
the Normans. Doorways and windows are ornamented with 
layer upon layer of zigzag, arabesque and other mouldings, 
like illustrations to a history of architecture. From the facade 
two pointed arches, like huge ropes mooring a liner, are 
flung far across the street to meet a massive belfry in the 
same style as the towers. The north side, the only one which 
caa be seen as a whole, is broken by a wide fourteenth- 
century porch, composed of three Gothic arches surmounted 
by a doping roof as of a Greek temple, so graceful that it 
saves from heaviness the long, unbroken wall. One of the 
pillars in the parch was probably taken from the mosque 
which had occupied the site of the original ninth-century 
cfctprch, for on it is inscribed a passage from the Koran. Thus 


even the exterior reveals a bewildering medley of different 

The doorway is made up of intricately carved dark marble, 
moulded to a pointed arch and surmounted by a golden 
mosaic of the Virgin and Child in the Byzantine style. This 
is the usual entrance to the Cathedral, an enchanted doorway 
which leads to another world. For passing through the fawn 
medieval walls one finds not the expected Norman work but 
a simple eighteenth-century interior without distinction. The 
Cathedral is two churches, an outer and an inner, bearing no 
apparent relation to one another and meeting only in the 
dome: it is as though a crusader, whom one would have 
imagined capable only of rugged sentences, had started to 
speak in the style of Voltaire. 

The interior takes the form of a cross. The nave is divided 
from the aisles by pilasters, each composed of four grey marbk 
columns, the whole finished in grey plasterwork. Nothing 
could be simpler than the lines of this interior, which was 
superimposed on the Norman original in the eighteenth and 
nineteenth centuries. Only the slightest ornamentation 
breaks the fiat, bare Palladian lines: statues of the same 
period all round the nave, and above the side altars paintings 
which harmonise, adding just enough colour to redeem the 
whole from severity. Light falls on the plain marble fioor, 
which is bare as a threshing stone. Of the outrageous details, 
concessions to popular taste, which so often mar an interior, 
there are in this building only two: the painted ceiling above 
the high altar, its too bright colours blatant in such decorous 
surroundings, and in the right aisle an enormous, over- 
elaborated reliquary of S. Rosalia, intricate to the point of 
losing all form, worked in silver during the seventeenth 
century, and imprisoned as it deserves behind bars closed 
with a massive padlock. 

In the first two chapels of the south aisle stand six royal 
tombs, bearing silent witness to the disastrous years when 
Sicily exchanged Norman for Swabian, thai for Angevin 
and finally for Spanish rule. The finest tombs, na<kr rich 


baldacchini and mosaics, belong to Roger II and the Empress 
Constance, his daughter, whom William the Good gave in 
marriage to Henry of Swabia. Henry's tomb stands close by, 
out of place here, for he had no love for Sicily: when he con- 
quered the island he roasted alive those who had shown any 
loyalty towards the bastard Tancred, and systematically 
despoiled Palermo, where he was known as the Cyclops* The 
neighbouring tomb belongs to Frederick II his son by Con- 
stance more ambitious and cultivated than the Normans 
themselves, the Stupor Mundi. In 1781, when the tombs 
were opened, his body alone was found preserved, small and 
ugly as in life, clad in rich clothes, with his crown and im- 
perial orb. Nearby stands the tomb of his wife, Constance of 
Aragon, by whom the kingdom descended to the first of the 
Spanish rulers, Peter of Aragon, chosen by the Sicilian Parlia- 
ment to free the country from the Angevin oppressor. His 
tomb, under a simple baldacchino, stands here with the others. 
These monuments represent some of the authentic facts 
of Sicilian history. The way in which those same facts have 
been moulded by popular imagination is illustrated by a 
legend which seeks to explain the difference of appearance be- 
tween this cathedral and that at Monreale, which is the most 
beautiful and richest building in Sicily. William the Good, 
so the story relates, was King of Palermo; William the Bad 
King of Monreale. Each conceived the plan of building a 
church in his own kingdom, and started to lay the founda- 
tions. William the Good built a church that was beautiful 
outside but not inside; William the Bad did just the oppo- 
site* They agreed that as soon as one had finished his church, 
the other should go and see it. As both churches were com- 
pleted at the same time, William the Bad went to Palermo, 
William the Good to Monreale. William the Bad, before set- 
ting out for Palermo, buried his treasure at the foot of a fig- 
tree along the roadside. When he reached Palermo, seeing 
the beautiful exterior of the church and imagining it to be 
equally beautiful inside, he was so surprised that he fell dead 
fb the ground like a load of cabbages. William the Good 


reacted Monreale and seeing Ac churdb from the outside 
imagined that the interior was just as ugly. He did not even 
bother to go in, but he was puzzled for he knew that William 
the Bad possessed great wealth. Being tired, he lay down at 
the foot of a fig-tree and while he slept, the Madonna ap- 
peared to him and told him that treasure was buried at the 
foot of the fig-tree where he lay. When he awoke, he un- 
buried the treasure and carried it back to Palermo. 

It is an artless story: as in the case of the cycle of Charle- 
magne at the marionette theatre, the essential fact, in this 
case the royal foundation of both buildings, has been retained 
while names and other details have become hopelessly con- 
fused. But if the story is useless as history, it is significant of 
an important element in Sicilian tradition. Throughout the 
island the most popular folk stories are those which relate to 
the discovery of a hidden treasure of gold. Such a theme is 
found in other folk literatures but in Sicily it is so widespread 
and assumes such central importance that one wonders 
whether it does not reflect something more than the 
memories of a country torn by almost continual warfare, and 
therefore of hiding and looting. More curious still, the most 
frequent items of treasure are oranges, apples and other 
natural objects fashioned of pure gold. They are closely 
associated with the devil, who either in person or through a 
deputy guards the treasure, which thereby takes on a for- 
bidden, unholy quality. Now of all the riches Sicily has ever 
known, the most magnificent were those of the pagan 
temples, of which Erice was the chief, and it is natural to see 
in these legends a memory of the hiding of temple treasure by 
pagan priests, as Christianity spread across the island. It is 
true that no honeycomb is mentioned in the stories, but in the 
course of time such an object may have dropped out in favour 
of the more familiar oranges and apples. 

Such speculation, however, can never provide more than 
circumstantial evidence, and some more tangible clue must 
be found. Returning to the real world of Norman architec- 
ture, a diversity of styles even more striking than those o 


the cathedral is to be found in the church called the Mar- 
torana or S. Maria delFAmmiraglio. It was constructed by 
Giorgio d'Antiochia, Admiral to King Roger. The son of 
Syro-Greek parents, he and his father for some time served 
under the Emir of Al Mahdia. In 1112 he came to Palermo 
and entered Roger's service, for the population of Sicily was 
still largely Greek and Arab, and the Norman kings did not 
hesitate to employ Orientals in the highest positions of the 
state. He distinguished himself in Roger's African wars and 
was finally given the exalted rank of Emir of Emirs and 
Admiral of Admirals. His office did not carry the naval 
power alone: after the king, he was the most powerful man 
in Sicily. He was a staunch orthodox Christian and particu- 
larly devoted to the cult of Our Lady: the dedicatory panel 
of his church shows him prostrate at the feet of the Madonna. 
The deed of the church's foundation has survived: the 
church was erected from its foundations by the Admiral, in 
honour of Our Lady and as a small thank-offering for the 
gifts which she had bestowed on him; the founder endowed 
the church, which he had built and decorated with lavish 
munificence, according to the wish of the King, with ten 
Saracen serfs, a village, two fondaca, a bakery and a garden in 
Palermo to provide for the administration of the church and 
the livings of the clergy. 

Here, after the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, the barons and 
mayors of the Sicilian cities met and decided to offer the 
crown to Peter of Aragon. That turning-point in the history 
of the island is reflected in the present remains of the church, 
which looks backwards to the great period of Norman rule 
and forwards to the Spanish domination, during which King 
Alfonso ceded the church to a neighbouring monastery 
fouacfed by Eloisa Martorana, whence it takes its familiar 
name. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries part 
of the original Norman structure was destroyed to make way 
for baroque decoration: hence the dual nature of the present 
church. From the Piazza Bellini the exterior is not particu- 
larly striking: the baroque west front adjoins a decayed 


Noiman campanile with four columned storeys. The en- 
trance is through a simple courtyard and plain doorway. 
Nothing outside suggests the riches within: the exterior, in 
fact, is as dull, perhaps purposely as dull, as a bank or a mint. 
But when the threshold is crossed one is in a universe of gold; 
rich mosaics cluster above and on all sides, though almost 
immediately it appears that the treasury has been robbed and 
imitation work left in many places. The high altar is in 
coloured marble and stucco work framing a dull painting 
above a fine, large tabernacle of lapis lazuli; most of the nave 
has been covered with eighteenth-century frescoes, to har- 
monise with and even to outdo (so, incredibly, it was be- 
lieved) the mosaics of the centre. 

The building takes the form of a Greek cross, divided by 
four pillars supporting a dome, and it is these which are 
encrusted with mosaics. They were probably executed by 
Greek craftsmen, heirs to the Byzantine tradition, which 
under the Arab domination had not been lost the admiral 
of Greek origin would have felt a special sympathy for their 
work and employed them to decorate his church. The dome 
itself is inlaid with mosaics of Christ with angels, and the 
tambour with prophets and evangelists. Larger than these 
are the figures of eight apostles at the sides of the cupola, 
their long faces grave and reverent, with that totally spiritual 
expression found in the sculptures at Autun, but with the 
added force of inexhaustible colour, each one an individual 
with a personality of his own, distinguished not by his clothes 
or the name worked beside him in Greek lettering but by his 
expression and the lines of his face. The gold background, 
though it has gained rather than lost splendour in its eight 
hundred years of continual summer, shows up rather than 
dims the rich colours of the garments, green, white, rose and 
lilac, mauve and blue, which soften the austere faces of the 
saints who wear them. 

The most interesting of the pictorial mosaics is a dual 
scene. On the left of the nave under the dome is a Nativity, 
Our Lady holding up the infant Jesus in swaddling clothes. 


Balancing this on the right is the Death of Our Lady. 
Clothed in blue she is lying on a couch surrounded by mour- 
ners, while directly above Our Lord holds her in his arms, 
wrapped in a shroud, a complete equivalent of the infant 
Jesus in the other scene. A perfect symmetry of treatment 
docs full justice to the symmetry of thought. There is no 
foreground or background, no past and present in these 
mosaics; everything takes place simultaneously and in one 
place* Such concentration of thought and imagery and 
colour, because one can never quite exhaust it, leaves a sense 
of mystery in fullest harmony with the subject-matter. 

Compared with this Byzantine work the baroque painting 
and stuccoes which decorate the rest of the church (though 
admittedly not of the first order) seem superficial and ostenta- 
tious. They are in poor repair and the paint in places is peel- 
ing. Because they have not endured as the mosaics have, one 
fancies, but not absurdly, that the thought behind them was 
less vigorous and profound. 

In this city of intermingled styles, almost every building is 
the joint product of two or more civilizations. Even Arab 
work has been utilised for what is perhaps the most pic- 
turesque exterior in Palermo. Set away by itself among trees 
and flowers, this disused church of S. Giovanni degli Eremiti, 
built by Roger II in 1132, not only combines Arab work but 
is unashamedly Arab in style. Surroundings of foliage are 
rare for any building in Palermo and in this case are particu- 
larly welcome for they set off the colour and form of the 
church to advantage, and isolate it from the rest of the city, 
to which it is in such striking architectural contrast. As 
one approaches it from the Porta Nuova, the body of the 
building is hidden by a line of palm trees, above which rises 
an undecorated grey stone tower, its thick walls pierced by 
plain arches and culminating in a smooth, rose-coloured 
cupola. A path leads up the surrounding garden to an emi- 
nence beyond, from which the church can be seen as a whole. 
Standing here at the angle of two walls one looks over at the 
west front and south wall of the nave. The building takes 


the shape of a T, the nave being surmounted by two large 
red cupolas, and the horizontal stroke of the T by the belfry 
tower and cupola, and two other cupolas equal in size to that 
which crowns the tower but smaller by half than those over 
the nave. The walls are of thick grey stone of the utmost 
simplicity. This oriental style of architecture is so unfamiliar 
to western eyes that instead of accepting its principles un- 
questioningly and going on to appraise the fine points of the 
building, as with works in a familiar form, one disputes 
the very conception of a church along such lines. In spite 
of oneself, first impressions tend to be of toadstools in chil- 
dren's picture-books, and even of coloured parasols, for these 
smooth domes are surmounted by thin, pointed stones. But 
soon the style sheds its novelty, and its power and simplicity 
are revealed. This is a church built fox burning sunshine, its 
thick walls and small windows, now bare of their Arab lattice 
work, restraining the heat and glare. The rose-red of the 
cupolas is the one colour which can withstand and prove a 
harmonious contrast to the deep blue of a Sicilian summer 
sky. Other colours, other forms would be submerged. 

The garden is crowded with flowering shrubs, fruit trees 
and flowers. Grapefruit, mandarines, lemons and oranges 
hang from the branches. Banana-trees and fig-trees are 
grouped luxuriously together with palms, cacti and prickly 
pears. One tree, close to the garden wall, is grafted, the 
branches on one side bearing lemons, on the other oranges: a 
figure of the building as a whole, for the church was built 
on to a mosque which formerly occupied the site, and even 
incorporates part of the earlier building, so that from the 
garden the red cupolas seem grafted on to the dark, lemon- 
coloured south wall, the remnants of the Saracen place of 

Still another age in Sicilian history the Norman consoli- 
dation is commemorated here. In the part of the garden 
facing the north-west corner of the church, still within the 
precincts of the mosque, stands a small cloister/ a fine ex- 
ample of pure Norman work of the late twelfth century. By 


then the conquerors were able not only to assimilate but to 
impose the style of their native country: it was no Arab 
craftsmen who built this airy colonnade with the light pillars 
rising in pairs to support pointed arches. The view from here 
through the graceful cloister to the powerful church and 
coarse, ruined walls of the mosque beyond makes vivid that 
tension in which Sicily has always been held, the pendant 
jewel of Italy, catching the light from rising and setting sun, 
poised at the centre of the Mediterranean between north and 
south, east and west, and blending within itself in a riot of 
styles, sometimes harmonising, sometimes conflicting like 
the colours at a bazaar, the spirit of diverse civilisations. 

The interior of the church is bare, containing only a few 
Arab vases and strong Spanish chests bound with metal. 
There still survive remnants of fine Byzantine frescoes which 
the Spaniards covered up in favour of baroque decorations, a 
Madonna and Child, S, James the Greater and S. John the 
Evangelist, patron of the church. They are hardly visible, 
however, and already seem to be receding like their com- 
panion frescoes into decay and total oblivion. From the 
ruined interior it is a relief to step out again into the garden, 
and look down at the red cupolas, against which a tall cypress, 
exactly equal in height to the bell-tower on the other side, 
provides just the necessary contrast in line and colour. Dark 
green, grey, rose-red> and over all the blue sky: it is a subject 
for Dufy, not for mere words. 

There are other Norman churches in Palermo to rival this 
one: S. Giovanni dei Lebbrosi, with its crude octagonal pil- 
lars; S. Gataldo, with its three rose-red cupolas running the 
length of the nave; and the most northern in appearance of 
all Norman buildings, S. Spirito, which apart from its lime- 
stone and lava decorations might be taken for a contempo- 
rary church in France. Elsewhere, too, Norman riches are 
to be found: on the Agro, the brick lava and limestone 
citurch with rectilinear apses, and at Messina, sole survivor 
of the earthquake of 1908 and the only fine building in a dull, 
city, the polychrome Annunciata dei Catalani, its 


cupola garlanded with a colonnade. Each one is interesting, 
but where so much else remains to be studied, they must yield 
before work which is more likely to throw new light on the 
island, its artistic traditions and its people, 

To the south west of Palermo the Norman kings created 
an immense park in which they built palaces, lodges, foun- 
tains and other works of art. Of the palaces two are standing 
today, but both are so stripped of their former splendour and 
stand among such squalid surroundings that it might per- 
haps have been more fitting had they died a sudden death, in 
battle or by an act of God, rather than linger on to such an 
old age. In Palermo it is only the churches that have man- 
aged to survive in their original or equivalent form, pre- 
served by faith as buildings with a purpose. 

The Zisa, its name taken from the Arab word aziz mean- 
ing splendid, was a magnificent palace, begun by William I 
and completed by his son. Today it stands massive as ever, 
in the same style as S. Giovanni degli Eremiti, but without 
the cupolas, a rectangular building flanked by two towers 
and crowned by a crenellated roof. The walls are moulded 
with slight recesses, only a few inches deep, to form the out- 
line of great pointed arches in three rows, sufficient to lift the 
building up and relieve its austerity without detracting from 
the mass. On the second and third floors the arches have 
been partially pierced to form windows, for this is the home 
no longer of kings but of commoners. On the ground floor 
in the centre of the fajade is a wide, arched doorway leading 
to the great hall, flanked by two smaller portals giving on IB 
a passageway. It is this hall which still bears traces of its 
royal pedigree. It is a large, lofty room open at one side to 
a portico and beyond to the arched doorway. The hall itself 
is polygonal, for the three walls give way to rectilinear al- 
coves, at the corners of which are six columns, the capitals 
finely worked in the shape of peacocks, of exceptional grace, 
symbols no longer of the soul but of stately luxury. In the 
alcove facing the entrance is a fountain springing from the 
far wall, crowned by a mosaic eagle and the remains of 


baroque frescoes. From the fountain water used to flow 
down a carved marble plane inclined at an angle into a 
channel in the floor, and so down to a fishpond outside the 
palace. Above the fountain is a large mosaic divided into 
three panels, the left and right showing peacocks beside a 
palm-tree, the centre hunters shooting at birds with bow and 
arrow. Running round the walls this red and green mosaic 
work is continued in abstract form, and above, again, are the 
remains of baroque frescoes. The three alcoves are sur- 
mounted by stalactite roofs: their uneven design is mirrored 
fortuitously in the ruined, dilapidated state of the floor. The 
fountain which once flowed to make music for kings and their 
ladies is dry, and the channel leading to the ruined fishpond 
choked with dust. Only the inside walls retain their royal 

The second Norman palace, the Cuba, is totally ruined 
within, but still possesses a magnificent and powerful ex- 
terior, the plain grey stone unspoiled by such brown stucco 
work as disfigures the facade of the Zisa. It stands in a bar- 
rack square, surrounded by army huts and garages, for the 
soldiers in their dusty khaki just another building in the 
square. The palace repeats the form of the Zisa, being rec- 
tangular with one tower at the centre of each walL Round the 
top runs a frieze with an Arab inscription, stating that Wil- 
liam II built the palace in 1180. It is thus a little later in date 
than the Zisa and an improved technique shows itself in the 
firmer, sharper moulding on the walls, again in the form of 
pointed arches, and in the even greater impression of power. 
Despite their changed condition, both the Cuba and its sister 
building possess a majesty which proclaims that they were, 
no, that they still are, royal palaces. The buildings are still 
highly enough charged to illuminate the days of their glory 
when the Norman court took its pleasure here: like all ruins 
they are not an occasion for regret but a challenge to the 

From a violet sky a hot sun is beating down on the Conca 
d'Oro. All day the king has been out hunting; now he has 

NORMAL &i!UBJfcJ>0 167 

returned to feast off delicacies and listen to die Arab poets 
eulogising himself and his splendour: "On the darkness 
shines his brilliant face, the sun might be envious of him; he 
has pitched his tent where the Gemini rise, its pegs are the 
two great lights of Heaven, and the Pleiades." 

In the great hall the court is gathered Normans who 
have marched two thousand miles to take possession of a 
new, rich land. Englishmen called from another Norman 
possession, Franks who have migrated south to build 
churches in this island newly wrested fom the heathen. They 
are the rulers, but they go to school with their subjects, 
bearded, dark-skinned men who are masters of sciences 
and arts the very existence of which the northerners had not 
dreamed. The talk ranges from mathematics to the geo- 
graphy of the world which is being prepared. For this new 
facts and many fables are now being recorded: Arab mer- 
chants give all they know of Africa, Arabia, India, Spain, 
and the Moslem world; Greeks at court describe the East 
and the Empire; returning crusaders are called in; Roger 
himself knows all Apulia and Southern Italy, and the King's 
uncle, Henry, describes his native Piedmont and Northern 

These descendants of Tancred, transported by their own 
force of arms from remote Normandy to the very cross-roads 
pf the world, from provincialism to the most cosmopolitan 
court that has ever existed, from shadow to sunlight, from 
parsimony to luxury, look round at the mosaic walls, at the 
perfumed fountain, at the musicians and poets, and wonder 
who and what they are, Byzantine potentates or upstarts, 
fastidious aesthetes or coarse Northerners, civilised princes 
or merely warriors with superior armour, and they are 
unable, as the dizzy evening advances and the revelry grows 
more impassioned, to distinguish between themselves and the 
parts they play. 

The Palazzo Reale is a vast collection of buildings of many 
periods and divers styles erected on an eminence at the wcs- 


tern side of the city. Here in the ninth century the Arabs 
constructed a military post which was later enlarged by the 
Normans and decorated in the Arab and Byzantine styles. 
This was the great period of the palace, when the Cappella 
Palatina was built and art flourished under the patronage of 
Norman kings. Under their successors, the Germans, the 
palace became a centre of learning famous throughout Europe, 
and here, especially during the reign of the enlightened 
Frederick II, himself the best of early Sicilian poets, flour- 
ished the first school of poetry in the Italian language. The 
cloistered courtyards have not yet relinquished the spirit of 
that golden age, when a second Athens rose on a more wes- 
tern stretch of the Mediterranean, and the conversation of 
artists still echoes through the arcades. During the vicissi- 
tudes of later history the building was subject to destruction 
and reconstruction so that, apart from the Chapel, of the 
original Norman epic there remains only a single stanza, the 
Sala di Re Ruggero. It is a small room in perfect condition, 
encrusted with mosaics of hunting scenes, of birds and trees 
and convoluted foliage, against a golden background, an 
image of the great hall of the Zisa before its destruction. 
The room was built fifty years before the Cappella Palatina, 
and the Arab influence, with its tendency to abstraction and 
aversion from realism, for example in the treatment of the 
peacocks, is much more evident. This room leads abruptly 
to civilisations which it is not yet time to regard, to 
eighteenth-century apartments hung in purpk damask, and 
these in turn to a still later ballroom, in green and yellow, 
built by the Bourbons* Indeed, the great variety of styles so 
overlap that neither within nor without is it possible to be 
certain into which century one has strayed. In Sicily this 
simultaneity of time constantly bewilders, suggesting that all 
Tbeanty exists in an eternal present. 

The buildings composing the Palazzo Reale, which are 
fused to form a single frontage without unity, have a pleas- 
ing exterior which, however, lacks grandeur. To the south 
stands the oldest part, a courtyard built by the Spaniards in 


the sixteenth century, surrounded on four sides by arcades in 
three storeys. As framework and support stand Norman 
foundations, for the staircase of these arcades gives entrance 
to the Cappella Palatina, founded by King Roger and dedi- 
cated to S. Peter. Of all the glories of Sicily, this chapel is 
among the most beautiful, a myriad-coloured miniature of 
Christian civilisation. If the treasure-house of the Martorana 
was pillaged, this casket is overflowing with all the jewels of 
the East; if Palermo is loud with suggestions of Norman 
architecture in the Sicilian manner, phrases as it were of a 
fragmentary poem, here is the text written out in full, the 
manuscript illuminated in gold; if the vicissitudes of history 
have tangled the skeins of Sicilian art, here is a masterpiece 
they dared not touch. It is royal, it is golden, it is Christian, 
it is a home, one is blasphemously tempted to think, almost 
worthy of God. 

The building is not large no more than a hundred feet in 
length for, intended as a court chapel, it has been incor- 
porated in the structure of the palace, so that of the exterior 
only the south wall is visible, facing the courtyard and the 
sunshine. From dazzling light, reflected in the cream- 
coloured walls of this arcade, one enters to darkness, which 
in turn gives way to a deeper, dimmer, more mysterious 
light. At first only the main outlines can be distinguished: 
the form, which is that of a Greek cross; figures looking 
down from all sides; and the golden eastern arch illuminated 
from the cupola. Only after many minutes, when the eye has 
grown accustomed to the dark, gilded light, does the chapel 
rise from its own shadows to stand revealed in full splendour. 

What is to be chosen first, for everything within these walls 
puts forward its own particular mode of beauty to be ad- 
mired? The more immediately evident takes precedence. 
The nave is divided from the aisles by ten pillars* some of 
granite, some of cipolin marble, exquisitely moulded and 
with gilded capitals. The sanctuary, reached by five stairs, 
is surmounted by a cupola. At the right stands the pelptt, an 
integral part of the chapel, raised on columns, in front of 


which soars a marble candelabrum, thirteen feet in height, de- 
signed for the Paschal candle. This ornament, undamaged, 
is a fine example of twelfth-century Norman carving, and 
depicts symbolic animals in convoluted shapes, intertwined 
with saints and a figure of God the Father. It is grey in 
colour and its tall, tapering form leads the eye upwards to 
the roof of the nave, to which it provides the ideal harmonic 
introduction. This roof is made of wooden stalactites in the 
Arab style, and its added dimension contrasts admirably with 
the necessarily flat walls. Moreover, while its dark brown 
colour sets off the golden mosaics, it is itself sufficiently elab- 
orate to withstand their brilliance. The floor, also, is in Arab 
style, being of white marble, patterned with rose, green and 
golden tesserae in oriental abstract shapes. These are 
matched in the lower half of the walls. The lowest space is 
decorated by a frieze of mosaics and this is surmounted by 
white marble divided into alternating panels, one showing 
a Maltese Cross, the other slabs of porphyry. This, the main 
section of the lower walls, is in turn surmounted by an even 
more elaborate frieze of tesserae. Thus the whole of the 
lower walls, including the pulpit and its pillars, is a progres- 
sive elaboration of the motif of the floor, culminating in the 
tesserae which cover the entire upper half of the walls, the 
pointed arches and their soffits, the cupola and apses. The 
thickness of the outside walls is shown at the windows, five 
in each aisle, five on each side of the clerestory, and eight 
small apertures in the cupola. At the back of the nave, raised 
on steps, is a dais for the royal thrones. 

All this is magnificent, but set beside the figured mosaics 
it is nothing, for the chapel is its mosaics, as the dancer 
is her dance. Largest of all are the three great figures of 
Christ. In the cupola looking down directly on the sanctu- 
ary is Christus Pantocrator, with large eyes, thick hair and 
beard, holding a closed book. The light falls directly on his 
face, revealing an expression of great power mingled with 
compassion. Before even one is aware of a reaction, it has 
compelled homage and abasement. In the central apse above 


the high altar is a figure of Christ blessing, with book open, 
and fingers of the right hand separated in benediction. This 
mosaic, by its half-vertical, half-horizontal position in the 
conch, admirably suggests the dual nature of its subject. 
Finally, at the back of the nave, between S. Peter and S. 
Paul, is a mosaic of the enthroned figure of Christ, the only 
one of the three representations to portray the whole body. 

The oldest mosaics are those in the sanctuary, the scenes 
on the south wall being distinguished by the Greek lettering 
beside them. They are in five main panels. In the centre is 
the Transfiguration, on the left the Baptism of Our Lord, on 
the right the Raising of Lazarus. Above is the Flight into 
Egypt, and beneath, balancing it, the Entry into Jerusalem. 
All these Gospel scenes are intrinsically dramatic and lend 
themselves well to simple yet graphic representation. Be- 
cause the modern world is so accustomed to Scripture as a 
written text, it forgets that to many people of the Middle 
Ages the Gospel was preached by picture and mystery play, 
forms more effective to some than the spoken or written 
word. Indeed, the image can be taken farther still, and in 
the gold background to this Scripture in pictures can be seen 
the equivalent of the great gold initial letters in decorated 
manuscripts of the same period. 

This dramatic instinct is evident in such a scene as the 
Entry into Jerusalem. At the extreme left walk eight of the 
Apostles, not all fully visible, their faces tense with ill- 
concealed fear. In front of them Christ, his eyes shadowed 
with sadness, his hand raised in benediction, sits on a white 
donkey led by an eager S. Peter. The road, silver in colour, 
shows up well the green palm, branches which have been 
scattered on it. A palm-tree divides the groups, and on the 
right stand six men and a woman at the entrance to Jerusa- 
lem, their faces betraying every sign of dissimulation. In the 
foreground four children, with all the enthusiasm and ani- 
mation of youth shown in their rapid movements, are tearing 
off their clothes to spread before the donkey, and it is these 
figures which Christ is blessing. The colours are green, rose, 


and mauve on silver and white, the background as always 
being of gold. The v road which at the extreme left is very 
wide in order to contain the large interlaced group of figures 
simply narrows to a point at the city gate: the road is not 
important. This concentration on essentials at the expense 
of logical realism is again evident in a scene above, where 
the angel is shown appearing to S. Joseph in a dream. S. 
Joseph is shown wrapped in something white, which, though 
it looks like neither, is both the bed-cover and sleep: no dis- 
tinction is made in Byzantine iconography between the sym- 
bol and the thing symbolised. Thus, everything in creation 
can be used as a figure: bird, beast, flower, or fish. 

The other main scenes in the building depict stories from 
the Old Testament and incidents in the lives of SS. Peter 
and Paul. On the panels below the cupola is a particularly 
dramatic scene, similar to one in the same position in the 
Martorana. On the left is the angel Gabriel, on the right Our 
Lady, and in the centre out of a blue, round heaven is 
stretched simply a hand, the hand of God the Father, from 
which speeds a dove in a line of light to Our Lady. The 
impact is instantaneous, because so simple and dramatic, yet 
there is nothing superficial about the work, and the details 
are finely executed. In these mosaics, as in mime and ballet, 
the position and gesture of the hands are all-important. Thus 
the angel Gabriel's outstretched hand at once delivers a mes- 
sage and commands; that of Our Lady, held close to the side, 
palm lifted vertically, protests her unworthiness. This fea- 
ture reveals one of the great secrets of the mosaics: they 
appeal immediately and overwhelmingly yet possess such 
spirit, such subtlety both of form and colour, that they are 
never fully fathomed. The faces overawe, yet remain in- 
scrutable: the scenes appear simple, yet their delicacy of 
colour and imagination of detail are highly complex and 
original qualities which would outlast a lifetime of marvel- 
ing. ) 

This ultimate achievement of Christian art shows such an 
advance on the crude sanctuary at Erice that it may seem as 


though no comparison were possible. That certainly holds 
true for the purely religious truths embodied in each build- 
ing: God the Creator has robbed the earth of its divinity; the 
Mother of God, successor to the Earth Mother, is a figure of 
charity not of passion; sub-rational awe and emotion have 
yielded to mystery which out-tops reason; historical episodes 
have replaced fancy and myth: such an advance, being in- 
finite, defies analysis. But in respect of religious art, com- 
parison is both possible and revealing. Here as at Erice man 
has dedicated his craftsmanship to God. The offering of 
Daedalus has blossomed out into this gleaming chapel, with- 
out losing its identity, for the Cappella Palatina is in two 
senses an enlarged honeycomb, not only in colour but in 
construction. The small polygonal tesserae of painted glass 
which were pressed home in a predetermined pattern to 
form the life of God and His saints are the exact equivalent 
of the cells in a honeycomb. The conclusion is not that 
Daedalus's honeycomb was a mosaic, for the art of inlaying 
glass had not then been evolved, but rather that it set the 
pattern for this building. 

It is not far-fetched to estimate so highly the importance 
of a single masterpiece, for an initial and original choice 
points beyond itself and starts a compound trail of conse- 
quences. Just as Adam involved all mankind in his accep- 
tance of the apple, so too, perhaps, Daedalus committed all 
Sicilian art in his choice of gold as a material and a honey- 
comb as his model. His masterpiece stands high like a sub- 
sidiary sun, wherever possible calling forth from art a reflec- 
tion of itself, now from a Syracusan coin and the shield of 
Athena's temple, now from a Pindaric ode, and here, under 
Christian auspices, from the golden mosaics of a royal chapel. 


Cefalu and Monreale 

THE mosaic decoration of the Cappella Palatina is reproduced 
on a grand scale in the only two Norman cathedrals outside 
Palermo which still stand in Sicily. The earlier, that of 
Cefalu, was founded by King Roger as a thank-offering. 
Caught in a sudden storm at sea, the king vowed to dedicate 
a cathedral in the place where he should be brought to safety 
and when, miraculously, he landed at the little Arab town of 
Cefalu, he fulfilled his promise. Both the vow and its fulfil- 
ment are worthy of a man who combined faith and works, 
love of beauty and love of battle. King Roger made his court 
at Palermo the most famous centre of art and learning in 
Europe, yet he repelled the continuous attempts of Byzantium 
to recover Sicily for the East, and extended his dominions as 
far as Corinth, Athens, and Thebes. The saints he admired 
most were Peter and Paul, supremely men of action and 
apostles of the faith; the arts he preferred were architecture 
and golden decoration to the glory of God. Not since the 
Greeks covered the island with Doric temples to the Olym- 
pian pantheon, did a conqueror achieve such opulent and 
refined building. 

The exterior at Cefalu ,is no less imposing than the im- 
mense rock which dominates the town. Twin square towers 
linked by a porch constitute a facade sufficiently powerful 
to balance the lofty apse. The stone is pale fawn; the decora- 
tion serves only to reinforce a building which reflects the 
disciplined strength of its founder. The interior, on the 
other hand, reveals Roger's eye for oriental splendour. Only 
the apse and sanctuary are decorated with mosaics. Confined 



to this limited section, they nevertheless impose themselves 
on the whole building. 

By far the largest figure is that in the conch of the apse, 
the head and shoulders of Christ In his left hand He holds 
the Bible open at the text in Greek and Latin: Ego Sum Lux 
MundL The right hand is raised in blessing, the movement 
parting His blue cloak to reveal a golden tunic. A halo 
crowns the head in which the large eyes are set close; the 
nose is long and narrow, the mouth straight and firm, and 
the whole framed by a curling beard and hair, of which two 
wisps are swept across the brow. Of the three comparable 
figures in Sicily, this is probably the earliest and certainly the 
most oriental in appearance. Only the round line of the halo 
prevents the face, with its curling beard, from appearing 
unduly long. If the lines of the face suggest asceticism, this 
is confirmed by the attenuated fingers. The eyes, on account 
of their large size and their dominant position in the cathe- 
dral, are all-seeing: nothing in the church is hidden from 
them: they symbolise that light to which the text refers. 
They are inscrutable and severe, yet not without 'compassion 
and love, illustrating the inscription which overarches the 
figures, where Christ is described on the one hand as re- 
deemer, on the other as judge. This is the essence of the 
impression: mercy mingling with justice caught in an arche- 
typal image, and since the truth expressed is a mystery the 
mosaic is inexhaustible. Such an interpretation, however, 
does not gainsay the immediate effect, which is of majesty 
and overawing power. There can be little doubt that Roger 
Himself selected or approved the design for this and the 
similar figure in the Cappella Palatina. He had dedicated the 
cathedral, before ever a stone was laid, to Christ Our Saviour; 
he was passionately interested in all the arts, particularly 
those of oriental origin; and this mosaic was the most im- 
portant feature of the whole interior. Did he, then, as some 
interpreters hold, purposely choose a figure correlative of his 
own power to overawe and even terrorise the masses? These 
historians support their argument by claiming that the 


Norman kings were unbelievers who deliberately fostered 
Christianity and the power of the Church within the island 
because they themselves were dependent for their rule on 
the goodwill of the Pope. Amari, for instance, describes 
Roger as a "baptised sultan" and historians of the same 
school claim that the prodigious scale of church-building 
under the Normans was occasioned not by devout apostle- 
ship but by a desire on the part of the northern upstarts to 
identify themselves with a permanent institution which had 
claims on the Sicilians more binding than those of the Patri- 
archs of Constantinople or the Arab invaders from North 
Africa. Such a theory, however, looks with modern eyes on 
the medieval conception of royal power. The true state of 
affairs is made clear by the two thrones, of equal grandeur, 
on either side of the sanctuary in the cathedral at Cef alu, and 
by the mosaic in the Martorana at Palermo in which Roger is 
shown receiving his crown directly from Christ. The Norman 
kings, no less than the local bishops, held power by divine 
right, and this was a fact which the monarchs believed as 
wholeheartedly as their subjects. Moreover, the Normans at 
this stage were much too certain of their own force of arms 
and their ability to keep the island in subjection to have re- 
course, as it were, to psychological warfare of an order which 
in those days would have been blasphemous. What, then, is 
a more likely interpretation of this huge, overpowering figure 
of Christ, dominating the cathedral not from the Cross, but 
from the glory of heaven, no less forcibly than a gigantic 
statue of Buddha, which imposes by sheer mass? Perhaps 
amply that Christ occupied just such a dominant position 
in tie lives of Sicilians of that time, including King Roger, 
and that craftsmen were at hand to express a contemporary 
fervour, denied its outlet during the Arab domination, in 
works of the greatest power and majesty. 

For there is no questioning the fact that these mosaics are 
among the supreme examples of Christian art. In scale as in 
conception, in line as in colour, which, thanks to the excel- 
lence of the materials employed, remains undimmed, the 


Pantsocraljor at CefaEi is unsurpassed by any other representa- 
tion of Christ, Moreover, since this figure was created in the 
tradition preserved from apostolic times by the mosaic- 
working hermits of Mt. Athos, it may be taken as an authen- 
tic portrait of the Saviour. Like the inscriptions, written 
partly in Greek, partly in Latin, the mosaics are the fruit of 
the fusion between Eastern and Western Christendom, resul- 
tant upon that curious historical process whereby the Nor- 
mans surged down from Hauteville to act as the fertilising 
insect between two cultural flowers. The humanism and 
compassion of the West are in this figure linked to oriental 
majesty, austerity and unlimited power; and corresponding 
to this psychological fusion is a stylistic combination of 
idealism in the facial expression, symbolism of gesture and 
a formal treatment of the garments. Yet there is nothing of 
eclecticism about the figure : the vision and vigour of the artist 
have not only fused but transcended the constituent styles. 

Beneath the Christ, on a much smaller scale, stands Our 
Lady without the Child, her arms parted and fingers ex- 
tended in prayer. Two archangels bear witness on either 
side, and below stand the twelve apostles. On the presbytery 
walls are patriarchs, prophets, and saints in several rows, 
single figures only, without landscape or architectural setting, 
of a very statuesque quality. The figures stand in stereotyped 
positions, differentiated not so much by facial expression as 
by the lines and colour of their garments, which range from 
pink and lilac to several shades of blue and green. 

More curious and more immediately striking are the 
figures which decorate the presbytery vault. Can these truly 
be what they first appear, a solution to the whole problem, 
representations of Daedalus and Icarus, ready to take flight? 
Each figure is equipped with wings more powerful than 
those of an eagle, substantial yet light enough to bear him 
four hundred miles or more across the Mediterranean* If 
this were a pagan building the guess might be correct and in 
any case it is not far wrong. Daedalus's manufacture of wiiigs 
from wax and his flight are the mythographer's way of 


describing how the artist spiritualises life, and these figures 
continue that symbolism in modified form, for they are 

Each compartment contains a six-winged figure described 
in two cases as Cherubim, in two other cases as Seraphim. 
In addition each of the two broader triangles contains a pair 
of two-winged angels, portrayed in the orthodox fashion, 
their human bodies covered by flowing white garments. It 
is the six-winged angels, whose heads alone are portrayed 
as the central point for the radiating wings, which are so 
curious. If they bear less resemblance to the human form 
than the usual Western pictures of angels, it cannot be said 
that they appear more superhuman: one would say they 
belonged to an animal rather than to an angelic order. On 
the other hand, the portrayals which follow the New Testa- 
ment description have the disadvantage of being mere men, 
their wings appearing quite extraneous. The chief difficulty 
in portraying an angel is that the artist, unable to imagine con- 
cretely any being higher than man, is obliged either to depict 
fantastic hybrids, identifiable only by those versed in icono- 
graphy, or to spiritualise a human figure in such a fashion as 
to be distinguishable from a saint. An example of the former 
is a pair of Tetramorphs at Monreale, with six wings and 
the heads of the four Apocalyptic beings, the whole mounted 
on wheels. In the latter event, the artist's difficulty is still 
further increased because he cannot with certainty go beyond 
the vague definition of an angel as a personal being inter- 
mediate in nature between God and man. What quality in 
man must he emphasise in order to give the effect of super- 
humanity? If spirituality, the angels are rendered invisible; 
if strength, they tend to brutishness; if beauty, they become 
effeminate. There is much to be said for Rilke's conception 
of angels as figures with a more intense being than man's, 
but these, clearly, would be even more difficult to portray. 
Christianity originally accepted current Jewish ideals of 
angels with their representation of Cherubim as winged bulls 
and Seraphim as the six-winged serpents of Isaiah's vision, but 

AN J> liOHREALE 179 

lalor tradition preferred to imagine them as futti or as young 
men, radiant and with wings to symbolise their role as mes- 
sengers, being physically and spatially intermediate between 
heaven and earth. Here in Cefalu, at the crossing of the 
vault, the two traditions meet in the strict formula of Byzan- 
tine iconography: the soft-winged messengers stand face to 
face with the wild whirlwind. 

Cefalu is a budding flower, narrowly limited but praise 
and vigorously defined, both in colour and form. At Mon- 
reale the same flower can be seen fifty years later, fully 
blown, its petals reaching out to the side chapels and up to 
the clerestory, until all the walls have been covered with a 
golden bloom. 

The cathedral at Monreale formed one of a small group of 
royal buildings on the slopes of Mount Caputo, at the edge 
of the Norman kings* park, and overlooking the Conca 
d'Oro. It was founded by William II in 1174 and rapidly 
completed, being designed and executed as a whole. The 
founder lies buried in a white marble tomb in his own cathe- 
dral. He was a recluse who seldom appeared in public, and 
never at the head of his armies. He preferred to live in his 
summer palaces, surrounded by eunuchs, concubines, and 
negro guards, familiar with Arab speech and learning and 
patron of the arts. Yet he gives the impression of a great 
personality: he revived Roger's policy of conquest and direc- 
ted a highly successful diplomacy. He was "William the 
Good," a king whom all classes revered and loved; to Dante 
he was in tradition numbered among the just men of the 
world; to Arab travellers like Ibn Jubair he was the very 
spirit of kingly generosity and tolerance. A contemporary 
rhymer has left his epitaph : 

Rex ille magnificus 
Cujus vita placuit 
Deo et hominibus. 

The exterior of the cathedral gives an impression of 
strength but no hint of the decoration within, Indeed, it 


bears traces, in its strong crenallated towers which dominate 
the coast, of the turbulent age in which it was founded, when 
every fine building like every eminent man had to look to 
its own defence and carry its own weapons. The west front 
is flanked by two bell towers (of which the left is incom- 
plete), their thick walls pierced by tall undecorated arches, 
while the sanctuary is surmounted by a simple square tower. 
The lofty apse which faces Palermo and the sea from the 
slope of a terrace, strong as a castle tower and as overween- 
ing, is decorated with limestone and lava in a bold, highly 
colourful pattern of intersecting arches, the whole being 
supported by small, light columns. Against a violet sky it 
stands out like a veritable honeycomb of gold, a reincarnation 
on the grand scale of Daedalus's work. This part of the build- 
ing alone bears a resemblance to the exterior of the cathedral 
at Palermo, the nave lacking the decoration and fine colours, 
the towers the intricate grace of Walter of the Mill's founda- 

In the sixteenth century an elegant portico was put up 
along the left side of the cathedral, and in the eighteenth 
the west front received a similar addition which does not 
detract from the magnificent doorway, its layers of mosaic 
and carving rising to a zigzag pointed arch. The bronze door 
by "Bonannus civis pisanus," cast in 1186, is divided into 
forty-two squares of bas-relief depicting Biblical events and 
suggests in its own more durable medium the multiplicity and 
dramatic interest of the mosaic interior to which it gives entry. 

To cross the threshold is to throw a golden light forward 
over the rest of one's life. Here, in a majestic pageant of 
multitudinous scenes portraying spiritual history from the 
Creation to the Redemption, is man's supreme tribute to 
God. Here is the perfection of the Cappella Palatina writ 
large, but far from having coarsened its delicacy of detail, 
the craftsmen of the cathedral have added to and developed 
the ornamentation, while preserving the freshness of the 
chapel. If the smaller building is a medieval carol, here then 
are The Canterbury Tales. The form has become tumescent, 


the dramatic tendon complete, and along a certain Hne the 
point has been reached in the portrayal of men beyond which 
no advance is possible. Decline and decadence lie on the 
other aide, but there are no decadent descendants of this 
cathedral, no descendants at all, for the fall of the Hohen- 
staufen dynasty shifted the whole course of Sicilian art. 

The cathedral takes the same form as the Cappella Palatina, 
while lacking the cupola, and is three times the size. The 
columns of grey granite were filched from Roman buildings, 
and on the carved capitals the heads of Ceres and Proserpine 
are prominent. This suggests that there was some technical 
difficulty in procuring materials suitable for such vast pil- 
lars: certainly, judging from the rest of the cathedral, 
economy was not the motive which prompted the use of 
pagan remains. The ruins of Roman buildings in Sicily are 
not extensive, but if, as may be the case, Byzantine mosaics 
are direct descendants of Roman work in this form, then 
these columns may originally have matched Roman mosaics 
and, although it may be objected that grey goes poorly with 
gold, they are not out of keeping with the surrounding Byzan- 
tine work. But the roof of painted wood is decidedly discord- 
ant, being a late addition, erected in the nineteenth century 
after the original had been destroyed by fire. Its rectilinear 
beams do not go well in a building of pointed arches and 
round columns, nor does its colour, a too-bright metallic gold 
paint, harmonise with the delicate luminosity of the mosaics. 

Round the nave from right to left in two tiers the mosaics 
portray scenes from the Old Testament, beginning with the 
first chapters of Genesis, while the aisles depict the miracles 
of Our Lord, In the left and right transepts are the story 
of the Passion and scenes from the lives of S. Peter and S. 
Paul. Thus, many of these mosaics represent events also de- 
picted in the Cappella Palatina, and a comparison of the two 
buildings in this respect shows the development of the art 
after an interval of forty or fifty years. Presumably no crafts- 
men, or very few, were employed in both churches; it was the 
next generation, schooled by the creators of the Cappella 


Palatina and profiting from their lessons, who decorated the 
cathedral. However, a total comparison between the two 
royal churches would be misleading, for one has the intimate, 
close atmosphere of a court chapel, the other the spacious- 
ness of a public building, with a wider area to elaborate 
details and arrange figures, and, above all, with more light. 

That, indeed, is the most immediately striking difference: 
the first, remotest scene in the nave is at once apparent; God 
commanding, Let there be light. In the Cappella Palatina 
these early chapters of Genesis are difficult to see on account 
of the obscurity, whereas here they shine, as if the words of 
the text were being read in a loud, resonant voice. 

In one scene God is resting on the seventh day: He is sit- 
ting on the world, His body relaxed and leaning slightly 
forward, His head a little bowed with the effort of Creation; 
in another are Adam and Eve, the garden of Eden exotic 
with huge primeval plants such as could well have abounded 
there. Here is Eve, doomed to bring forth children in pain, 
sitting beside Adam as lie labours with his hands, while she 
holds her belly, sitting askant in an attitude of suffering. In 
the scene of the deluge, beneath swirling waters the wicked 
can be seen struggling in desperation to save themselves; in 
another picture Lot's wife has been metamorphosed into 
quite palpable salt, her frozen form contrasting with the 
other figures hurrying away. The scenery is still minimal 
and symbolic, like that in the Japanese No plays. Two 
portals and a window serve for a house, and incidentally 
reveal oriental lines, just like the beds, which have come 
from the Eastern Empire. By now the Norman kings had 
adopted the comforts of the East, though it is possible that 
such details in the mosaics are a deliberate attempt to recap- 
ture the surroundings of the Old Testament story. 

Who made the mosaics of Palermo and Monreale and 
Cefalu no one knows. Perhaps Sicilians, perhaps Greeks and 
Byzantines living in Sicily, perhaps Arabs at the court of the 
Norman kings; perhaps even, just as the great bronze doors 
were cast by an Italian from the mainland, the mosaics were 


made by Venetians. Certainly by this date tlie figures are 
decidedly less Oriental than in early Norman buildings. The 
earliest mosaic of Christus Benedicens at Cefalii is an oriental 
potentate with narrow face and nose and long fingers; that 
in the apse of the Capella Palatina, slightly later in date, is 
already less Byzantine, while here, after an interval of forty 
years, the figure is much less stylised and rigid, more human, 
and, so it would seem, more compassionate. The head and 
shoulders are almost sixty feet high, and the hand raised in 
benediction is itself six feet long, yet there is no suggestion 
of grandiosity or overpowering mass, nor, on the other hand, 
is the figure merely a man: the tension between the divine 
and human natures is exactly maintained. 

The scenes in the transepts from the life of Our Lord 
chiefly represent miracles of healing, and the vividness with 
which the different diseases are depicted the man suffering 
from dropsy has a huge, bloated belly, the lepers are wealed 
with sores, the blind men have transferred all their sensitivity 
to their outstretched fingers shows how familiar that age 
was with suffering and sickness. The choice of these particu- 
lar miracles was surely no chance, nor was the choice of 
saints to be seen in the apse, among them the first portrait 
of S. Thomas of Canterbury, who had only recently been 
canonised. That William II, despite the fact that through 
his wife Joan of England he was a son-in-law of Henry II, 
should have chosen to give veneration to a saint who had 
exalted the spiritual above the temporal arm argues a very 
close friendship between the Norman kings and the Papacy, 
on whom some of their power originally depended. 

The development of style made possible by the increase of 
wall space is well revealed by certain details in the cathedral: 
for instance, the palm tree in the Entry into Jerusalem, un- 
decorated in the Cappella Palatina, here has two white birds 
resting in its branches, and in the scene of Esau hunting, 
where the royal chapel shows two birds in the tree and two 
lying dead on the ground, the cathedral mosaics depict two 
birds actually falling from the tree a much more vivid and 


telling detail. Again, in the cathedral there are five men 
working at the construction of Noah's ark, three handling 
great saws, as opposed to the three less striking figures with- 
out saws in the chapel. A still more important development 
is that here the walls have been conceived not only as the 
canvas for a series of scenes but as a complete whole. Scene 
is balanced against scene to obtain a total effect: the wall 
itself, not the individual episode, is the basic unit. The 
cathedral, planned and executed in a single burst of inspira- 
tion, is thus a homogeneous work of art, whereas the chapel, 
where the plans for the mosaics were several times changed, 
lacks this quality. But the most important advance evident 
in the mosaics of the larger building is one which can be 
traced in the development of almost every art within a cer- 
tain genre and within a certain period of time: an increase 
of mobility, as though the winds of inspiration and technique 
had freshened, catching both faces and garments. Whereas 
the figures of the Cappella Palatina are to some extent still 
hampered by the formal aspect of the medium, here they are 
very much freer and more flexible, their movement more 
fluid and drapery more intricate, their faces less elongated 
and expression less stylised. The movement is towards com- 
plexity and realism, away from symbolism and naivety. Not 
that the mosaics have been Westernised, far from it: they 
still belong to the Byzantine tradition, and the advance, 
which is purely relative and indeed only remarkable after 
detailed examination, has taken place within the limits of 
this tradition. The Norman and Romanesque carving of the 
period show that purely Western work, although sensitive 
and highly original in its treatment of nature, could depict 
human figures only quite simply and bluntly. 

This remarkable contrast between Eastern and Western 
work of the same period can be seen in the capitals of the 
adjoining cloisters, contemporary with the cathedral. They 
stand at the south side, part of what once constituted a 
Benedictine monastery. They take the form of a square, whose 
sides are a hundred and fifty feet long, the pointed Norman 


allies springing from 216 columns grouped in pairs, except at 
the comers where they are in groups of four, and resting on 
low walls. Each alternate pair is inlaid with mosaic work of 
diverse patterns, and all the capitals are carved with foliage 
or Biblical scenes, no two capitals being alike. In the centre 
of the cloister a garden flowers, and in the south-west corner, 
like the mathematical symbol which marks a right-angle, the 
arcade projects from the cloister proper to form a tiny square 
addition, in which a fountain plays. The outside walls of the 
cloister are decorated in limestone and lava, yellow and 
black, in the same fashion as the cathedral apse but on a 
smaller scale. The simple harmony of these cloisters is the 
result of complex imaginative planning: thus the inlaid 
mosaics catch the black and yellow decoration of the outside 
walls and add to them the strong red of the flowers in the 
garden; while the fountain, a daring addition to monastic 
cloisters, is yet discreet enough to be acceptable. 

Certain details in the arcade no doubt caught the eye of the 
Benedictine monks as they walked in meditation. On one of 
the capitals William is shown offering the cathedral to the 
Madonna and Child an angel carrying the building on its 
back and all this carved on a capital no more than twelve 
inches in length. Another feature is even more curious. The 
fountain is composed of three diverse elements: the vase into 
which the water falls is in the Pompeian style, the stem is 
worked in Norman zigzag, and the top, showing dancing 
Bacchantes, belongs to an age before Christianity: this diver- 
sity of styles serving, at the corner of the cloister, as a signar 
tore, authenticating the work as Sicilian. 

By confining the mosaic work to every other pak of 
columns the architects have avoided a sumptuousness which 
would have detracted from the spirit of the place. The 
Benedictine fax still lingers in these passages, beautiful yet 
austere, imaginatively designed yet never diverging from 
their set purpose: to provide surroundings which will lead 
the mind to God, Indeed, of all the buildings in Sicily 
this combination of natural and artistic beauty, where foliage 


in the green square vies with foliage carved in stone, and 
graceful columns discipline a flamboyant garden and sky, is 
the one most conducive to devotion. 

From the garden within these cloisters bees drew nectar 
to fill the monastery hives, hundred upon hundred of them, 
for honey-making was, until their dissolution, an important 
industry for most religious establishments, in Sicily as else- 
where. The honeycomb which Daedalus offered, the liba- 
tions of honey poured before the gods of Greece and Rome, 
did not wholly disappear with paganism, for honeycombs 
found their way on to the Christian altar in the form of bees- 
wax candles. The candle came to be considered a symbol of 
the Saviour and of the virgin body of Christ, because the bees 
carry the wax from the best and sweetest-smelling flowers. 
The wick denotes the soul and mortality of Christ, the light 
the divine person of the Saviour, and as the candle slowly 
consumes itself in light it symbolises Christ's life of self- 
immolation which illuminates the way to heaven. The 
candle stands as an offering not only on the high altar but 
before the shrines and images of patron saints, and there is 
competition on the feast days of Sicilian saints to produce the 
largest possible candles in the patron's honour. 

If the honeycomb was of service on the altar, the bee itself 
and its habits provided many illustrations to enliven theologi- 
cal treatises. Such analogies as were made, however, are 
often inexact because the habits of bees were not always 
clearly understood; for example, even in the Blessing of the 
Paschal Candle on Holy Saturday the wax candle is said to 
have been formed by the apis mater. Bees are praised because 
they produce posterity, rejoice in offspring, yet retain their 
virginity, and the life of bees is compared to the life and 
duties of monks. As there is but one king bee in the hive, 
there should be only one king, one pope, and as the king does 
not use his sting, so bishops must be mild. The lay brothers 
of the monastic orders are compared to drones, and the 
slaughter of the drones to the scourging of the lay brothers, 
which took place occasionally. In the evening sudden still- 


ness falls upon the hives, and so it should be in a monastery, 
The seven, or at most ten years of life which are granted to 
bees correspond to the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit and 
to the Ten Commandments. In this way the bees whose 
marvellous habits had led the ancients to consider them in 
very fact divine were seen in their true light, as mere em- 
blems, either of the divine itself or of the Christian life. 
Nowadays, since few people delight in symbolism, mistrust- 
ing it as ambiguous, the bee and honey no longer play their 
part in theological treatises nor point beyond themselves. 

But among the people of Sicily they are still the object of 
curious popular beliefs. It is held that bees not only bring 
good fortune, but are so religious that they recite the rosary 
every evening. This is clearly a derivative of Christian sym- 
bolism, but two other beliefs go beyond Christianity to Greek 
and perhaps earlier times. The Sicilians, like the Greeks, 
believe that honey is a sort of manna which falls from heaven 
on calm nights and which the bees collect. More curious still 
is the belief that bees are hedged about with a rigorous code, 
and that if a man attempts to steal a honeycomb, he will 
incur some dreadful punishment. This belief, which is 
unique in folklore, may well point to a time when a certain 
honeycomb on Mount Erice was sacrosanct and its violator 
guilty of sacrilege. But to the further questions whether that 
offering still exists, and if so where, popular tradition unfor- 
tunately provides no clue. 

However suspect symbolism may be, the absence of bees 
here in this cloister garden does hold out one undeniable 
meaning: Monreale was the culminating point of Sicilian 
Norman art, the perfection but, no less certainly, the end of 
a golden age. With its completion, the Norman line suc- 
cumbed to Southern heat and luxury, the era of peace and 
productive plenty came to a close, and Sicily felt for the first 
time, under Henry VI, the impact of German power and 
the rapacity of the Imperial armies. A new hierarchy of 
barons installed itself, amid the turmoil of war, imprisoning 
and torturing those of the old order who resisted. Henry's 


successor, Frederick II, though a patron of the arts, has left 
proof in the string of castles he built across Sicily that he was 
first and foremost a warrior. The city he preferred was no 
longer Palermo, lazing between sea and orange groves, but 
lofty Enna, the central stronghold of the island. 



ENNA at twilight, a massive mountain fortress, a city of mist 
and bells. The new road from the north winds slowly up the 
rock face, edging now to this side, now to that, as though 
fearful of attaining the summit. The city is so completely 
a stronghold that to see it even from a distance is at once to 
feel the challenge of battle, and to move up the winding road 
is to storm the ramparts. At first it appears so high, so mas- 
sive, allied even to the clouds, that the very attempt seems 
presumptuous, and as the road winds closer, there grows a 
sense of achievement perhaps amply an effect of the finer 
air to be fulfilled when the walls are passed and the strong- 
hold falls. But, as in the taking of joy, the better part slips 
away: for the city has retreated further into the clouds, 
into the mist and twilight. The walls, the foundations are 
here, it is true, thick, tangible, grey walls, but they stand 
like the ruins of an ancient town whose towers have toppled 
long ago. Nevertheless the occupation even of these ruins 
must continue the street gives way to a piazza and here are 
the citizens, remote, grey, and ethereal as the city they inhabit. 
They huddle together, moving quickly in the thin, sharp ak, 
the men (the taller figures) wearing great dark-blue hooded 
cloaks, Eke the habit of monks but made of thick, close-woven 
wool, the others bundled into cloaks and shawls. They ckx 
no speak, and it is this fact which makes clear what ia$ 
already been half-divined: the city is <jiiite silent, mat as a 
village is, for the sound of birds and beasts is never altogether 
stilled in a village, tmt with the positive, defianl sHeaoo cC a 
mountain height Past the defeatol ghost-ike cttztetts, 
street narrows between ruins to the centre of 


and farther still to the huge mass of the cathedral. Itself a 
fortress, the great portals and minor doors closed, although 
it is not yet night, as though locked against loot and sacri- 
lege. On all sides the houses refuse entry: guerrilla warfare 
and street fighting seem imminent. Still the silence makes 
its assault, ominous because so unnaturally profound, only 
to be thunderously broken by the one sound that can har- 
monise with the mountains, the mist and the muffled figures 
the ringing of cathedral bells. They start to chime the 
angelus, these carillons in the clouds, with a loud, uncom- 
promising, clear tone, emitting their message across the 
valley to the next range of rocky hills. But not only to the 
hills, for here and there in the street figures pause and make 
the sign of the cross. 

All night the hard frost holds until the net of stars drags 
in a cold dawn, spangled and bright. In the cathedral, un- 
locked now, requiem mass is being sung, and the coffin lying 
before the high altar is draped in black, guarded by six tall 
candles. In the pew beside it kneel three old women envel- 
oped in black shawls, indistinguishable from the one they 
have come to mourn. Soon they are joined by two others, one 
a dwarf twisted as an olive-tree and no taller than a child. 
They have brought with them a copper pot containing 
embers which they now place between their feet, allowing the 
warm smoke to mount between their skirts. During the 
singing of the Dies Irae the priest remains seated, and his 
server comes to the old women, takes the embers from them 
and hands them to the celebrant. He in turn puts the copper 
pot beneath his chasuble, and after a little while his breath 
becomes quite smoky: proof that the heat has been duly 
transferred. The cold is so intense that prayer is frozen be- 
fore It can form: instead the breath of the congregation rises 
Eke an incense to heaven. Though this is still Sicily, the 
Dies Irae is the appropriate chant, awakening echoes of the 
previous night, so characteristic that it might be a local folk 
song. The spirit of this mountain fortress is almost the spirit 
of Brittany, and it would be no surprise to find a grey stone 


ct&vairc silhouetted against the sky by the cathedral porch. 
The cold, the exposed position, the rock, the piercing, all- 
pervading wind, all these, as in Brittany, show the precarious 
hold life has on earth. The Stations of the Cross and requiem 
mass are the two popular rites, figures of the people's condi- 

Most Sicilian towns are poor in bells, perhaps because it 
requires too much energy to ring them, but Enna, being still 
northern and medieval in spirit, rings out the ceremonies of 
the church with multiplied voice, as though to awaken an 
echo from each of the surrounding valleys. All the churches 
have their distinctive belfries: S. Francesco d'Assisi has a 
sixteenth-century tower, pierced with round arches in three 
tiers; S. Marco has a squat pointed tower of no great pre- 
tensions; the Gothic campanile of S. Giovanni, formerly a 
military watch tower, is the most graceful, with a lilting, 
three-light window in its heavy walls; while on the heavy 
Renaissance belfry of the cathedral, towering above all the 
others, the mouldings, paying the price of their lofty position, 
have started to crumble. 

The history of Enna extends farther back in time than the 
records of most Sicilian towns, with the exception of Erice, 
to which in respect of its lofty position and medieval aspect 
it bears some resemblance, for here in this town and in the 
surrounding country arose the myth of Demeter, to spread 
all over the fertile agricultural island. Thus Enna carries 
on the religious influence of mountains inaugurated at 
Erice and hands it on in the Christian era to Monte Pellegrino. 
Even today the environs of Enna are celebrated for thek 
cereals, and the town's bread is made in peasant fashion with 
maize, so that it assumes a yellow colour beneath the brown 
crust. The seat of this cult of Demeter was on the extreme 
north-east point of the city, on a great projecting rock domi- 
nating all the surrounding country and surveying in the cfe* 
tance the lake of Pergusa, important in the myth as the 
where Persephone was stolen away to the unde^worfeL 
wonder the early Sicanians believed this rock the seat of a 


goddess; hills undulate northwards towards the snow-tipped 
Madonie, inlaid with ever-changing shadows of clouds, while 
far to the east rises the white, moody pyramid of Etna, 
modelling its form and colour on the cirrus clouds. 

From this rock the pigeons flying high above the valley 
look diminutive, and the hawk hovering patiently above its 
prey can in its turn be surveyed. Across the valley immedi- 
ately to the north rises Calascibetta, a Saracen town so mar- 
ried to the mountain that at first it appears to be a series of 
cave dwellings cut in the rock face. From the summit houses 
spill over the gender slope of the mountain, so that one day, 
it seems, the whole town will flow down the winding road 
into the valley. Count Roger fortified the place when he 
laid siege to Enna, and being the only town of comparable 
height in the region, during the day it still has a menacing 
air, while at night the lights of this citadel, reaching into 
the sky, form new constellations of larger, more splendid 

Of the two kings in Sicily who have loved Enna each has 
left his monument at an extreme edge of the town. Frederick 
II, the Hohenstaufen, built close to the temple of Demeter a 
great castle with twenty towers, eight of which still stand. 
This Castle of the Lombards, as it is called, though no one 
knows why, is an immensely powerful, irregular building 
like its founder, conceived on a grand scale. The view from 
its towers is such that although it does not extend to the sea, 
it seems to include, on all sides, the whole of Sicily, justi- 
fying Callimachus's description of Enna as the navel of the 
island. On the opposite side of the town, as befitted a lesser 
monarch, Frederick II of Aragon built a solitary octagonal 
tower, which nevertheless has held out better than the castle 
against the sharp winds. Enna at first sight instantly recalls 
a Spanish mountain city such as Toledo, and it is not sur- 
prising that Frederick of Aragon found himself most at 
home there, assuming the title of King of Trinacria at Enna 
and ten years later assembling in the same city the Sicilian 
parliament. That energy and sense of purpose which dis- 


fieguisbed his life become apparent immediately one sets 
foot in the hill fortress and it continued latent down the 
centuries to burst forth in vigorous revolutionary movements 
during the insurrections against the Bourbons unsuccess- 
fully in 1848, triumphantly twelve years later. Those quali- 
ties are still impressive in Knna, so that to leave the cloud- 
capped towers and clanging bells for the almond blossom 
of the warmer valleys is a second time to travel from the 
vigorous north to the languors of Sicily. 

From the heights of F.rma the road runs down to vine- 
yards and almond groves, green pasture and the rich brown 
earth of cornfields, amid which lies the lake of Pergusa, 
probably of Plutonic origin (here, for once, geology joins 
hands with myth), oval-shaped and some three miles in 
circumference. By its waters the myth of Persephone was 
born, that story which no poet could resist telling, Homer 
and Pindar, Callimachus and Ovid adorning it each in his 
own particular way. The maiden Persephone, with her 
attendant nymphs, was gathering flowers on the banks of 
Lake Pergusa. As she stretched out her hand, in amaze- 
ment and a little timidly, to pick a wonderful bloom, a nar- 
cissus with a hundred heads, Aidoneus, lord of the under- 
world, came up through a cave near the lake (the gloomy 
cavern still exists) with his chariot and black horses, and 
carried off the Maid. In the plain of Syracuse, the nymph 
Ciane rebelled against him and bade him let the Maid go. 
Ciane as punishment was turned into the fountain that bore 
her name and Aidoneus carried off his prize to the undor- 
world. Demeter, the Maid's mother, distracted with sor- 
row, wandered in search of her daughter, but nowhere on 
earth could she find a trace of her. Her sorrow prevented 
the corn from growing; the human race was in danger of 
perishing and the gods would then have been without 
honour or praise, had not Zeus taken pity on her grief and 
settled that Persephone should stay half the year with 
Aidoneus as queen of the underworld. But she received 
Sicily as a wedding gift and was allowed to staf for tfae 



rest of the year with her mother as one of the two great 
goddesses of the island. 

This legend, because it offers an imaginative explanation 
not only of the seasons of the year, but of the multiple pat- 
tern of human life, of the rhythm between sorrow and joy, 
has persisted longer and more vigorously than almost any 
other Greek myth. It is at once a particular, quite simple 
story and a universal truth susceptible of countless interpre- 
tations. The hundred-headed narcissus, like the fruit of the 
tree of knowledge or the Promethean fire, is the symbol 
of an ideal state, denied to man, but which, as he attempts 
to reach it, brings about his downfall. Persephone's wish to 
pluck the fantastic flower is every man's search for illicit 
or excessive happiness, while the god of the underworld is 
the "old man" lurking beneath seeming pleasure. Again, 
the myth illustrates every mother's grief at the marriage of 
her daughter, and apprehension of the pain and loss the Maid 
will experience in leaving her childhood state for woman- 
hood. The compromise solution relies neither on the inex- 
orable terror of tragedy nor on the sugared, fabulous impos- 
sibility of a fairy tale: instead, in highly imaginative form it 
expresses a strictly realistic view of life which, taking account 
of both laughter and tears, tries to strike a balance between 
them. Even today the people of Enna are proud to say that 
this legend originated within sight of their city; and that the 
temple at Enna was the seat of her worship. They call a 
street Via Persefone, not because the old gods are still alive, 
but because the story of Demeter and the Maid so admir- 
ably represents the essentials of human existence. 

So the town's history has its roots deep in legend. Logically 
Enna is representative of the island's medieval life, of the 
disturbed period between the extinction of Norman rule and 
the age when Sicily became a Spanish dependency, but to 
isolate one particular layer of history from those before and 
after is virtually impossible in the case not only of Enna but 
of all Sicilian towns. In each the strands of multiple civili- 
sations are interwoven, just as among the people can be 

ENNA 195 

glimpsed here a profile from a Hellenistic vase, there a 
coarse and swarthy African face, and in their speech now a 
Lombard, now an Arab word. Sicily is an island lying out- 
side time, where past events endure in an eternal present, a 
beach on which the tides o successive civilisations have 
heaped in disorder their assorted treasure. But the very dis- 
order favours a search such as this where the purpose is to 
identify an artefact, either literally or symbolically, either as 
a particular object or as some constant in Sicilian history. 
Identification nearly always takes place by contrast: the gold 
seam stands out not in a mountain of metal but against dark 
ore. If Enna itself has yielded no treasure, at least it has 
suggested that circumstances favour eventual success. 


Two Paintings 

AMIDST the wealth of architecture and decorative work, of 
sculpture and mosaic, it is astonishing, at first sight, that 
there should be no great tradition of painting in Sicily. Time 
after time a church with a splendid facade will reveal above 
its altars pallid canvases by Novelli or frescoes by Vito 
D'Anna. If Sicily owes her artistic tradition to Daedalus, the 
shortcoming becomes explicable, for the Cretan was archi- 
tect, sculptor and craftsman in gold, but he is never referred 
to as a painter, and painting is not one of the arts he intro- 
duced to the island. There are two undisputed masterpieces 
of painting in Sicily, both at Palermo: both are conceived in 
an alien Flemish tradition and were perhaps executed abroad. 
By contrast they bring out the distinctive nature of the 
Sicilian heritage. 

The first of these paintings is the Annunciation, Antonello 
da Messina's masterpiece. In this work the realistic shading 
and detail which Antonello learnt in Flanders, already ap- 
parent in his portrait of an unknown man, are put at the 
service of a profound, almost visionary, insight. The work 
is a small wooden panel depicting with the utmost simplicity 
a single figure: indeed this perhaps is the secret of its great- 
ness, for nothing, neither subsidiary figures,, nor furnishings 
nor fine clothes nor background, stands between us and the 
Mother of God. To see the picture is immediately to be with 
her, in the same room, at the same intersection of time and 
eternity: she is there we are as close to her as the angel 
Gabriel looking up from her prayer-book, her dark, oval 
face at once strong and submissive, her eyes unsurprised and 
quite passive, her lips firm and untroubled. With her left 
hand she draws together across her breast the folds of her 




single blue garment, covering head and shoulders, for even 
an angel is an intruder. The gesture is simple and without 
urgency yet it reveals virtues which a whole litany could not 
list. Her right hand is lifted forwards and raised at a slight 
angle, fingers spread out towards the invisible angel, a gesture 
so mysterious that, while we seem to understand its purpose, 
in fact we know far less than its whole meaning. She is, before 
all else, simultaneously accepting and without declining 
hesitating: submitting at the spiritual level, hesitating at the 
human, but such are the gentleness and delicacy of the move- 
ment, it is certain beyond doubt that when the will of God 
has been made clear to her, she will already have accepted. 

Yet there is far more than a hesitant acceptance in this 
manifold gesture. A certain tension in the hand betrays sur- 
prise: the outstretched fingers seem to be groping towards 
that more spiritual reality to which the angel belongs; the 
straight line of the palm seems already to have authority and 
to be imparting a blessing. All these things lie in that mar- 
vellous right hand, and many others too, more than the most 
clairvoyant of palmists could discover or interpret, and it 
is this unfathomable quality which makes the portrait a 
supreme work of art, this mystery lying in the single right 
hand, as enigmatic and inexhaustible in its expression as the 
smile of the Madonna of the Rocks. 

If the Annunciation is a dedicated work, inspired by love 
and devotion, there is another great painting in Palermo, the 
Triumph of Death, which seems to have been blurted out in 
stark horror. It is a very large fresco by an unknown painter, 
inscribed at the bottom O Mors >uam Amara Est Memoria* 
In the centre, dominating the whole scene, is the skeleton of a 
man seated on a galloping skeletal horse, the legs of which 
form as it were a triumphal arch over the prostrate bodies of 
potentates^ pierced by arrows discharged by the rider. To 
the left kneel sick and aged beggars petitioning the horse- 
man to release than from their sufferings; to the" rigjht sac 1 
the rich, mailing music and going through tfce iMfeoss of 
amusement, but all of them surreptitiously wandbkg DeaA 


out of the corners of their eyes. Details of dress, the fact that 
all the figures are on the same plane, the fair hair of the 
women and the forest which takes the place of the sky as a 
background, suggest that the artist may have been a Fleming 
of the fifteenth century. But the problem of the painter's 
identity and how he came to be in Palermo are less puzzling 
than certain other features. The subject, for instance, lies 
quite outside the Christian tradition, on the far side even of 
the Dies Irae. Death comes wholesale and irresistibly, with 
an aspect inspiring terror and even hysteria; a force in itself, 
not the gateway to eternity. This is the tradition of the 
Danse Macabre and the Camposanto di Pisa, but in the 
present work a still more gruesome and sombre note is evi- 
dent. The artist, surely, had witnessed an epidemic of 
plague, not an infrequent occurrence in Sicily. Yet why 
should Death be symbolised rather than shown in a particu- 
lar shape? The bodies of the dead, though jangled, are not 
treated luridly, as might be expected from an artist with an 
emotional rather than an intellectual concern with the sub- 
ject. Indeed, it has been suggested that the painting is a 
visual treatment of Petrarch's theme in Trionfo delta Morte: 

Ivi eran quei che fur detti felici, 
pontefici, regnanti e imperatori; 
or sono ignudi, miseri e mendici . . . 

On the other hand, it may be that the fresco is less obsessed 
by Death than by contemporary social conditions, that it is 
in fact "committed" art. The dead figures are all of the 
ruling class: bishops, lawyers, princes, and other grandees, 
yet there are no young women, as might be expected if the 
artist's purpose were simply to lament that " tutti in un punto 
passavan com'ombra," It is the faces of the rich and their 
concern with death rather than the beggars that interest the 
artist. Moreover, the unknown painter is said to have de- 
picted himself among the poor people at the left: he is thus 
taking sides against the ruling class. This interpretation 
might be supported by the inscription: the memory of death 



is bitter only for the rich, not for the poor, since only the 
ruling class lose honours, pomp and wealth when Death 
strikes them down. The purpose, then, is clear: only social 
justice will render the thought of death tolerable to the 
wealthy. The picture accepts as a premise the Christian 
tradition of an after-life, but instead of depicting the tor- 
ments of Hell a device to which the rich were then as now 
certainly immune it emphasises with horrible intensity the 
actual deprivation effected by death on the material plane. 
Whatever the artist's purpose, the painting is a strange one to 
have graced a hospital, for the Palazzo Sclafani, which it 
originally decorated, was converted to that purpose in the 
fifteenth century. The sick and dying can hardly have been 
encouraged by it, and the doctors must have cast a cold eye 
on the absurd anatomy of the skeleton, with receding pelvis 
and thigh bones extending in one piece over the knee. But 
perhaps in the fifteenth century in Sicily a hospital was little 
more than a mortuary. It has survived, this skeleton, while 
the human skeletons over which it galloped have long since 
crumbled to dust, because it is part of a highly imaginative 
work of art. The suggestion of disguised horror in the eyes 
of the nobles, the contrast between Death's skeletal horse 
and, nearby, a pair of intensely healthy dogs, straining at the 
leash, of all the creatures in the picture the only ones unafraid; 
the purposeful right arm of Death mocking the idle strum- 
ming of the musicians' fingers these and many other details 
announce the resource and skill of this .unknown master 
from the North with the apocalyptic vision. 

Mary is portrayed at a moment of crisis; Death is reaping 
a wholesale harvest: both paintings, with their grave subjects 
and sombre treatment, their dark colours and deep shadows, 
stand well away from the Sicilian tradition. They recall the 
Aeolian Isles, not a rich and favoured land. Their alien 
qualities show up, by contrast, the light and laughter, the 
bright colours and essential joy which are the hall-mark of 
the island's art, brought to maturity, as it has been, by tfafc 
steady, fruitful light of the Sicilian sun. 


Baroque Palermo 

IF PALERMO enjoyed under Norman rule a golden age in 
both senses of the word, her glory was not extinguished with 
the Hauteville line. She was now an established city, a com- 
mercial port in her own right. Under Spanish rule her lot, 
like that of Sicily itself, varied with the fortunes of Spain and 
the character of the viceroys who ruled the island. In general 
the two peoples understood one another, and Spanish rule 
proved tolerant and tolerable. The positive achievements of 
the Spanish domination were the successful defence of the 
island against Turkish aggression together with the preser- 
vation of internal peace, and the building up of a system of 
conciliar administration. On the debit side, banks and credit 
were controlled by foreigners, so that Sicily remained poor, 
and excessive amounts of corn were sent out of the island, 
which more than once suffered famine. Palermo remained 
the capital, although a provincial capital, and the new 
Spanish aristocracy, which in course of time married into the 
great Sicilian families, gravitated naturally towards the seat 
of government. Since the faith was unchanged, part of their 
wealth, as in Norman times, was given to the Church and 
went to the building of cathedrals, convents and oratories. 
The Renaissance came late and lightly to the island, and it 
was not until the baroque age that Palermo evolved a new 
style which displayed the Sicilian temperament as exuber- 
antly as the Norman mosaics had done. 
- The perfection of Spanish baroque work in Palermo sug- 
gests a general truth which holds good for every period of 
Sicilian art. Whatever forms were imported to the island, 
whether Greek temple or theatre, Roman mosaic, Norman 



cathedral and cloister, all ripened to their fullest and finest 
in the rich Sicilian soil, until they attained a magnificence 
unsurpassed by similar work in the mother-countries. That 
this should be so with regard to even one civilisation would 
be unusual; that it happened in each successive age without 
fail is quite unparalleled. Yet this truth is already implicit 
in Diodorus's story: although he worked in several other 
countries, it was in Sicily that Daedalus, importing foreign 
forms, achieved his finest masterpieces. Once more the origi- 
nal story has proved prophetic, pointing beyond itself to a 
general pattern in the island's history. 

Baroque art in Palermo provides an exact figure of the 
aristocratic society, largely of Spanish origin, which ruled 
the island during the seventeenth century. It derives its 
forms from Spanish baroque, but carries them very much 
further than they were ever carried in Spain. It is character- 
ised by stucco reliefs of immense complexity and by inlaid 
marble walls, enriched to such a point that every crevice of a 
church's interior may blossom with flowers of polychrome 
stone. On the other hand, in Palermo at least, little attention 
is paid to the exterior, which is dull and sober; in Sicily it 
is only at the cathedral of Syracuse and the church of San 
Sebastiano at Acireale that fine Spanish baroque facades can 
be seen. 

Most distinctive of baroque work in Palermo are the little 
oratories to be found scattered across the old part of the city, 
their undistinguished exteriors lost in the close-knit pattern 
of walls and roofs. As their size and style suggest, they were 
built by aristocrats who, wishing to patronise particular 
artists, commissioned chapels where they could worship 
privately and with decorum. It is a tribute to the devotion 
of the patrons that their family history is excluded from the 
sculpture and painting: the buildings were erected to Ae 
glory of God, although they may not be conducive to prayer. 
Now they are kept locked with enormous old dodbfe mid 
triple locks, and are used only for an occasional mass or 
wedding. They are hidden away from the twentieth century, 


buildings with mean bodies and cultured minds, having lost 
their purpose in this day and age. 

The Oratory of the Company of S, Laurence is a building 
no larger than the dining-hall of an English country house, 
its ceiling high and its walls decorated with stucco work 
depicting scenes from the lives of S. Laurence and S. Francis, 
the masterpiece of the seventeenth-century artist Giacomo 
Serpotta. These scenes are curious in being three-dimensional, 
and the figures are worked with extreme delicacy, even the 
smallest details being faithfully reproduced in the fragile 
stucco. The scene on the back wall depicting S. Laurence 
being placed on the grill is larger than the other groups and 
of exceptional fineness, the figures being modelled with 
power as well as with that grace which distinguishes all Ser- 
potta's work, often to the point of weakness. The decorative 
stucco work on the walls alternates with ten symbolic statues 
of the virtues, the whole being interlaced with cherubs of the 
same material. The impression is one of lilting lighthearted- 
ness, and it is only the cloth of red and gold encircling the 
walls beneath the decorations and leading to the altar that 
stamps the building as a place of worship. The altar, of pink 
and green marble with a blue tabernacle, is decorated in gilt, 
with gilt candlesticks, and above it hangs a Nativity by 
Michelangelo da Caravaggio. 

In 1606 the painter had been compelled, not for the first 
time, to leave Rome. Three years previously the protection 
of Paul V and Cardinal Scipione Borghese had secured his 
return to the city, but they were now powerless to help, for 
he was charged with murder. Taking ship for Malta, he was 
received there with favour by the Grand Master, Alof de 
Wignacourt. He painted several pictures in the island but it 
was not long before he insulted one of the knights out- 
rageously and was ordered to leave. With hopes of return- 
ing to Rome, he sailed for Syracuse and eventually in 1608, 
a year before his death, arrived in Palermo, where he was 
given a commission for a Nativity, to include the two saints, 
Francis and Laurence. It is one of his most powerful 


pieces, filled with the turbulence of the conflict between good 
and evil which characterised the painter's life, but so far is 
it from being a religious painting that the Christ Child lies 
almost hidden in shadow. The Madonna, whose head, shoul- 
ders, and arms are alone visible, is the central figure of the 
canvas. She is dressed in red, leaning her elbows so that 
the shoulders are high and her hands drooping, and she 
looks down with a tender expression at the Christ Child. 

It is no coincidence that this same expression was caught 
eighty years later by the young Serpotta in his figure of 
Caritas, the most beautiful of his allegorical figures in this or 
any other oratory. A girl is standing, flanked by two chil- 
dren, and holding in her arms a young baby who is sucking 
at her left breast. Her eyes are half-closed, and she is looking 
down at the infant with an expression of innocence and 
sweetness, dimples at her lips, her apple-cheeks rounded. So 
tenderly is the figure treated that one can imagine that Ser- 
potta modelled it upon the memories of his boyhood mistress, 
the one woman he ever loved. If this is charity, it is a childish 
or angelic f orm, so spontaneous that one cannot imagine the 
face with any other expression: a love which flows as natur- 
ally as the milk she is giving to her babe. It is a blend of 
childish and maternal love such as one sees occasionally in a 
young Sicilian girl of fifteen or sixteen, so fresh and radiant 
that one imagines the infant she holds is a younger brother 
or sister until she starts to suckle it. 

Round the walls are low wooden benches, inlaid with 
mother of pearl and supported at regular intervals by deli- 
cately carved figures in wood, an eighteenth-century addi- 
tion which does not fall short of the earlier decorations. But, 
despite its particular excellences, this hall is misnamed an 
oratory, for of all places imaginable it is the least devotional, 
The stucco scenes are simply the playground for a gifted 
humanist, and the profane details are treated as lovingly as 
the saints themselves. This white plaster seems particularly 
unsuitable to sacred subjects, and its convulted shapes, liJbc 
the foam on a breaking wave, distract the eye instead of invit- 


ing recollection. Stucco is more fittingly used in a scene such 
as the Battle of Lepanto, on the rear wall of the Oratory of 
S. Zita, where each oar is depicted in web-thin plaster. 

The Oratory of the Company of the Rosary of S. 
Domenico, a building twice as large, is altogether too elabo- 
rate and on too full a scale. The walls are surrounded not 
only with statues but also with vast paintings of the Mysteries 
surmounted by large stucco biblical scenes. The statues by 
Serpotta depict young women symbolic of the virtues, but 
these placed close to the dark paintings of the sorrowful mys- 
teries seem frivolous and profane: such juxtaposition of dark, 
sacred canvases with light-hearted stucco work is common 
in baroque churches and destroys the effect of both. The 
ceiling, a Coronation of Our Lady, by the Renaissance painter 
from Monreale, Pietro Novelli, is an undistinguished ex- 
ample of his work. But amends are made by the large painting 
by Van Dyck (who was Novelli' s master) over the high altar, 
of the Madonna with S. Dominic and the patrons of Palermo. 
It was commissioned in 1624 when Van Dyck was in 
Palermo, and completed by him four years later in Genoa, 
whither he had retired from Sicily to escape the plague which 
suddenly struck the island. In the middle of his work he was 
told to add to the centre of his canvas the figure of S. Rosalia, 
kneeling in intercession for the end of the plague : during this 
epidemic the city first found its beloved patron saint and no 
painting without her figure could have decently been hung. 
The result is a curious crowding of the canvas, with a very 
slim S. Rosalia just visible in the middle of the other saints 
not the only time that the dictates of popular taste have 
marred a work of art. In the stucco scenes, which are large 
but placed too high to be seen to advantage, Serpotta has 
given a free rein to his imagination and illustrated such texts 
as " I saw an angel coming down from heaven." The statues 
are less good than those in the Oratory of S. Laurence, well 
executed but with little individuality, chaste Aphrodites 
without power to move. 

Serpotta, the artist responsible for the decoration of the 



Oratories, was bora in 1656, the second child of a sculptor 
of moderate talent in Palermo. He was trained in Ms father's 
craft and one tradition has it that he went to Rome to study. 
At the age of twenty he fell violently in love with a young 
girl of Palermo, who bore him a natural child, Procopio. He 
seems to have been greatly affected by this youthful escapade, 
never marrying, working fabulously hard and living a 
modest life almost in seclusion, unacknowledged by his con- 
temporaries as anything more than a good local stuccoist. So 
little is known about his life that biographers are reduced 
to interpreting his character from his wills, in which he left 
a large sum to pay for masses for his soul, and asked to be 
buried in the habit of an Augustinian brother: perhaps out 
of remorse for the transgressions of his youth. Whatever the 
truth, Procopio became his ardent disciple and continued the 
school of Serpotta after his father's death. There is one other 
story about him: that he passionately loved music and would 
rest from his labours, standing on the scaffolding of oratory 
or church, by playing the lute. It is a likely tale, for about 
all his work, whether it be putti or saints in flowing robes, 
there is a lilting, melodic quality which might be the personi- 
fication of an aria by another Palermitan, Alessandro Scarlatti. 
The oratories which Serpotta raised to the rank of master- 
pieces, when taken in conjunction with the other artistic 
achievements of Sicily, point to a conclusion : that within the 
island, art, of whatever form, has been dedicated primarily 
to a religious purpose. None of the contemporary palazzi 
can boast artistic wealth to be found in even the meanest 
baroque church or chapel, and the same is true of otter 
epochs. The glory of Sicily lies in its Greek temples, its 
statue of Aphrodite, its catacombs, its Norman cathedrals, 
its baroque chapels and churches; just as the Sicilians put on 
their finery and rise to the zenith of enttatsiasm for their 
patron saint's procession. The sacked nature of the island's 
art is a counterpart of deep religious faith, which before tlee 
Nativity had no otter course but &> worship the locai deitieis, 
whether Oriental, Greek, or Roman. Em whatever the eea- 

tury, whatever the cult, that faith has objectified itself in 
consummate achievements. 

Diodorus has put on record that the first artist to work in 
Sicily also dedicated his genius to the service of a cult, 
fashioning a votive offering for the mountain goddess of 
Erice. The original Sicilian work of art took a religious 
form, and since to originate in any field is also to start a tradi- 
tion, the sacred element has remained dominant until the 
present day. The startling persistence of the tradition does 
not prove Diodorus's story true, but taken with the other con- 
firmatory evidence which has already emerged, it increases 
the likelihood that Daedalus actually offered a sacred honey- 
comb of wide and enduring significance. 

The masterpiece of Sicilian baroque is the church of S. 
Caterina, consecrated in 1664, facing the Martorana in the 
Piazza Bellini. As soon as one enters, one experiences that 
absolute satisfaction together with a penumbra of bewilder- 
ment which only a perfect work of art can give. Every 
visible square inch of this vast building (it is almost two hun- 
dred feet in length) has been cultivated to add its yield to the 
total harvest of beauty. A garden in full bloom, a granary 
heaped to the rafters with corn, an orchard teeming with 
fruit none of these gives quite the same effect of abundance, 
for none has been harmonised and concentrated with deliber- 
ate and inspired art. The combination of colours rose- 
brown, white and black and the added dimension given 
by the relief work are the immediately striking features, con- 
veying a sense of chiaroscuro and pale light which draws one 
into the nave. The interior takes the form of a cross, with a 
dome but without aisles. Pilasters run the length of the walls, 
separating the six side chapels, each of which is as richly 
decorated as the nave, and each having its distinctive pattern 
of inlaid marble. On a single pilaster there are carved as 
many as twelve cherubim in relief, each one perfectly 
executed, whether conspicuous or hardly visible high above 
the nave. At the base of each pilaster is carved a biblical 
scene almost the only doctrinal evidence in a world of pure 



nature: one of them represents Jonah and the whale, with a 
magnificent Spanish galleon in relief, its rigging of metal 
wire. The richness of the meanest chapel here would dignify 
the high altar of many another church. That of S. Caterina 
in the south transept shows the tour dc force at its highest 
pitch. Here the detail of decoration is carried to a point 
beyond which all form would disappear under the weight 
of ornament and the whole would be lost in the profusion 
of the parts. It is as though the flowers in a large garden had 
attained such luxuriance that it is uncertain whether the 
garden has not reverted to its primeval state; as though a 
snowstorm had been depicted in the medium of marble; as 
though a frenzied mind, the mind of a Rimbaud, were 
throwing out powerful and extravagant images before tum- 
bling over the verge of madness. The first principle is that 
nothing shall remain simple: the straight line of a column 
must be twisted, or the flutings painted: the bases must be 
inlaid with bulging pieces of marble: the recesses must be 
filled with flowers: at all costs nothing must remain bare, 
lest it prove that other worlds exist, simpler and quieter than 
this extravangance of flowers and frozen fountains, aban- 
doned to a perpetual state of tension. 

S. Caterina used to be famous for its preserved pumpkin 
and blancmange, and the Martorana opposite for its frutti of 
sweet almond paste. If the taste for sweet cakes was intro- 
duced by the Saracens, it was the growth of the religious 
houses during the Counter-Reformation which developed 
cake-making into an art, and curiously enough the decora- 
tion on present-day cakes recalls nothing so much as the poly- 
chrome interior of S. Caterina a significant sidelight on this 
form of baroque architecture. 

Each religious house specialised in one particular form of 
confectionery or pastry, and since this was one of the princi- 
pal means of livelihood competition became sufficiently in- 
tense to produce a wealth of designs and recipes. Tfae fact 
that many daughters of noble parents chose the religions Me 
perhaps accounts for the fastidious and elaborate decoction 


o the cakes. All are typically Sicilian in their extravagant 
colour and cloying sweetness. The simplest sort is the imita- 
tion of fruit or vegetable, smaller than life size, made in 
almond paste. As though in some fabulous greenhouse, 
strawberries and cherries, figs and oranges, apples and pears 
all ripen together in the confectioner's window, as they once 
did at the church doors. The small orange-coloured nespole 
which appear in May and taste half-apricot, half-orange, are 
shown cut in half, revealing the large seeds which resemble 
chestnuts. Wild strawberries and raspberries are fashioned 
with such cunning that it is almost impossible, before they 
are tasted, to distinguish them from the real. Heaped to- 
gether in a wide bowl, their opulence of colour is as cloying 
as their tropically sweet taste. 

If these almond-paste imitations out-colour nature, the 
actual fruits are candied to preserve what in the natural order 
of things would perish. As though embalmed in sweet 
spices, the rind of the fruit persists, its true essence lost in the 
taste of sugar. In this candied confectionery the colour be- 
comes darker and autumnal, like the rich brown shade of 
heather honey. Both the imitated and preserved fruits, how- 
ever, possess only a surface excellence, for they have that 
heavy, overpowering taste which Sicilians find pleasing in 

The larger cakes are minor works of sculpture. Like severe 
Roman baroque architecture, the inside is of Ettle interest: 
as in most Sicilian cakes it consists of a cassata layered 
with curds, enclosed in pistachio-marzipan. All the con- 
fectioner's skill and invention are lavished on the external 
decoration, which is as varied as three dimensions and a 
round shape will allow. Candied oranges halved with 
cherries on a chocolate base; a chequered carpet of cherry 
jam, in which are set waterlilies made of pistachio cream 
with petals of half almonds; a garden built up like a bas-relief 
with a succession of quartered preserved fruits; a coat-of-arms 
composed entirely of star-moudings in coffee and chocolate 
cream; a Catherine wheel spun with spirals of rainbow- 


coloured icing: as varied as the pattern of snowflakes, as in- 
tricate, one can imagine, as Daedalus's golden honeycomb, 
they present a carnival of colour, form, and materials. They 
are new, exotic, perfumeless flowers, coloured stuccoes, 
triumphs of architecture, their mouldings as finely worked 
and fretted as any Saracen portal or window. They are 
marble inlays more gorgeous than those of the church of S. 
Caterina, vivid and intricate as the wheels of a Sicilian cart. 
But, by contrast, they are as perishable as the butterflies and 
flowers they resemble: no other artist unless it be the maker 
of fireworks fashions such ephemeral materials as the confec- 
tioner. In the shop window his cakes attract the passer-by 
as jewellery or silverware would, but to sell them is to destroy 
his handiwork with his own hands: annihilation is the price 
of success. As in an oriental slave market, in the confec- 
tioner's shop beauty is bought only to be consumed. 


Ragusa and Modica 

THE development of Sicilian art has always been dependent 
of the tastes of the ruling class, and nowhere is this more 
strikingly displayed than in the early and late phases of 
baroque. In the seventeenth century the great works were 
built under Spanish auspices in the capital city of Palermo; 
in the early eighteenth century political changes took place 
which brought new influences to bear on the island's art. 
The Treaty of Utrecht assigned Sicily away from Spain to 
the King of Savoy, who in 1718 was obliged, in exchange for 
Sardinia, to cede the island to Austria. The next change 
came through the victorious expedition of Don Carlos, son 
of Philip V of Spain and Isabella Farnese. By his recognition 
in 1735 as Charles III, King of Naples and Sicily, the semi- 
Italian line of Bourbons was established, and the island gravi- 
tated into the artistic orbit of Rome. The capricious and 
highly worked interiors of Spanish baroque are now super- 
seded by more sober buildings whose importance lies in a 
facade based on the classical orders. As chance would have 
it these new buildings were erected not in Palermo but in 
the south-eastern corner of the island, devastated by an earth- 
quake in 1693. The most important of the destroyed towns, 
Catania, was rebuilt by Vaccarini, who studied at Rome in 
the school of Carlo Fontana. He excels in circular churches, 
like S. Agata, which display his sober virtues to perfection. 
Much more impressive, however, and less dependent on 
Roman tradition are the buildings in Ragusa, Modica and 
Noto, designed for the most part by an architect whose full 
importance has only lately been brought to light, Rosario 



Ragusa is, accurately, two towns, not one, two Mil-top 
towns, their bases joined by immensely long flights of step, 
their roof-tops, in early spring, interlaced by ceaselessly soar- 
ing swallows, newly returned from nearby Africa, a day's 
flight away. The towns survey each other like two houses 
on opposite sides of a street, mistrustful and standing on their 
rights. Unlike Enna, which commands the province for 
miles around from a unique height, Ragusa looks over its 
own precipitous but limited valley on three sides to neigh- 
bouring hills of equal eminence, their skyline quite level: 
moors rather than Sicilian mountains, arid and uncultivated, 
whose limestone formation is articulated by the town's grey 
houses. Ragusa Superiore, the newer part, lies on the western 
side of Ragusa Ibla, so called because it claims, with little 
justification, to occupy the site of the ancient Sicel town of 
Hybla Heraea. The newer town commands a well-grouped 
view in the direction of its sister-foundation. The mountain 
falls away as far as the eye can see in a precipitous slope, 
which has been formed into terraces no more than two or 
three feet wide, planted with corn and beans. To the east 
houses take the place of fields, so narrow and haphazard 
that they seem at any moment in danger of losing their foot- 
hold. On the far side of the chasm lies the older town, at a 
lower level, but also built on the cone of a hill, its grey houses 
so tightly packed that the place appears to be one huge build- 
ing, a fortress or prison. The town is dominated by Gagli- 
ardTs cathedral, of which only the dome is visible from this 
side, for the church faces west. Although the dome seems 
little more than a stone's throw away, the journey from Ragusa 
Superiore to the cathedral takes half an hour, the way being 
entirely by flights of steps: not an orderly, continuous stair- 
way, but irregular, erratic goat-paths which wind ike 
tangled skeins of wool in and around the houses and sweep 
under bridges; long, flat steps and narrow, steep grace-notes* 
tumbling down like a cascade, following: the line of feast 
resistance to the gorge below. When that is reached, a smi- 
lar path up the farther slope zigzags tfaimigh Ragusa IWau 


The view back towards the newer town mirrors the previous 
panorama but looks upward, leaving no doubt which is the 
dominant of these two sister settlements. 

The approach to the cathedral is up a long, steeply sloping 
road and an extensive flight of steps, above which soars the 
fajade, entirely silhouetted. This has a convex central sec- 
tion rising to a belfry, which, instead of forming almost a 
separate unit as a half-tower, is integrated into the whole 
front. The dovetailing is effected by the subtle arrangement 
of the six central columns which are set in threes on an 
inclined plane and continued upwards in the second storey. 
In the third storey the columns are evenly spaced across the 
front on either side of the belfry arch, which terminates in 
a flattened square turret, rising to a point. The impression 
is of effortless height, depth as well as breadth, and grace on 
the grand scale, this last quality being affected by the outline 
of the second and third storeys which rise in a magnificent 
sweep to the tower. The lofty dome rests on a drum com- 
posed of sixteen columns, the lines of which are continued 
upwards on the dome proper and repeated on a miniature 
scale in the lantern, giving a light upward movement to the 
whole. In the last century the interstices between the 
columns of the dome were filled with blue glass which, how- 
ever, does not detract from the dome's beauty. The interior 
is remarkable for thirty-two modern stained-glass windows, 
rare examples of an art which has never found great favour 
in Sicily. Reds and, blues are rendered even more vivid by 
the southern sun, and the long nave, already flooded by light 
from the cupola, takes on the appearance of a gaudy patch- 
work quilt The demonstrative canvases and gilded columns, 
the white plaster walls and sentimental statues, were perhaps 
already sufficiently cloying without the addition of this 
coloured cross-light, yet such is the cumulative effect of so 
many primary colours, sticky as sweets, that the interior gains 
rather than loses from this deluge of cherry water and lemon- 
ade. Nevertheless, here as in nearly all the churches of south- 
eastern Sicily the interior is but a feeble reflection of the 


glorious facade: so disappointing, in fact, that there comes 
a time when one is tempted to remain outside an unfamiliar 
baroque church altogether, 

The cathedral is more than a fine building; here, as in 
Cef alu and many other Sicilian towns, the tower, a figure of 
transcendence, of grace resisting the down-drag, redeems the 
grey hovels, lifting and dedicating them to a spiritual ideal, 
putting the whole town into touch with infinity. Just as 
Sicilians express their deepest feelings in religious forms 
which impart to them an absolute value, so at the purely 
aesthetic level their towns are often saved from meanness by 
the architecture of a single church. Ragusa owes more than 
it has ever acknowledged to Rosario Gagliardi of Noto. 

Those towns in which one spends only a short time, like 
the characters in obscure periods of history, are remembered 
for one or more vivid and perhaps irrelevant pictorial inci- 
dents. So it is with Ragusa. The town lies torrefied: the 
sirocco has been blowing for two days, and although the 
upper town stands fifteen hundred feet above sea level, the 
surrounding mountains blanket it to such an extent that the 
region seems a desert. The time is four o'clock in the after- 
noon. In this doorway a lean dog sprawls sleeping, in that 
a beggar. Outside the clubs which line the main piazza 
the Circolo Agricolo, the Circolo dei Combattenti and in- 
numerable other similar institutions are sitting the old men 
of the town several hundred of them, each with his black 
cap pulled well down on his head (for even in the shadow 
the light dazzles), each with his straight-backed wooden 
chair, sitting in groups and talking interminably, as Aey 
have done for many years and will continue to do for the rest 
of tbeir lives. All along the three walls of the piazza* fifefc 
the elders of Troy whom Homer compares to crickets, Aef 
keep up their animated conversation and, when an occasional 
pretty girl passes by, a new Helen, watch her with 
admiration until site is lost from sigJit. Where are 
the strong young warriors of the city, in whom the old - 
take their pride? Where are the bastions of Ragim, galakt 


upholders of the city's noble traditions? There they are in 
an adjoining street, sitting at caffe, watching the passers-by, 
talking, and teasing the pretty girls. The tradition is handed 
on loyally from father to son. 

Suddenly there is a commotion, one of the eagerly awaited 
distractions of the day. The carved coloured doors of the 
chiesa matrice are opened and on to the stage of the church 
close, raised above the piazza by flights of steps, moves the 
advance guard of a funeral. The bell in the square begins to 
toll as the procession totters into the piazza. It is headed by 
a score of men, so extremely aged, bent double or hobbling 
on crutches, that it is a wonder they can stand, let alone 
walk, all the more so since each carries an immense, heavy 
wreath in the shape of an inverted heart made up of arum 
lilies interlaced with marigolds. The incongruity of the 
floral arrangement is matched by the next element in the 
procession, boys from an orphanage dressed in maroon, with 
navy-blue berets, each with a musical instrument. This is the 
brass band, playing a dead march so off-key yet so lugubrious 
that in spite of itself it excites pity. Behind the brass band 
follows a line of six priests, the younger ones scrupulously 
reciting from new breviaries, immaculate still with gold leaf, 
the older without books, perhaps praying interiorly, perhaps 
merely walking. The plain wooden coffin follows, borne by 
six youths, and, they in turn are trailed by the mourners and 
finally the hearse which, once the outskirts of the town are 
reached, will bear the coffin to the necropolis. As the proces- 
sion passes, the old men sitting outside the circoli struggle 
to their feet, take off their caps and cross themselves re- 
peatedly. The cortege passes at a slow march: everyone in 
the piazza suddenly grows old even the orphans, strug- 
gling under their drums and tubas like the children of 
Laocoon with monstrous beasts, appear to be staggering 
along, and their faces have the weary, resigned expression 
of old age. One of the leading wreath-bearers stumbles on a 
stone and almost falls. The brass band misses a note. The 
heat tightens its rack by still another notch. For a moment, 


less and longer than a moment, of blind, irrational terror, it 
seems that civilisation itself is being carried to the cemetery 
civilised man lies in the coffin and is being borne in proces- 
sion by the last survivors. When the body has been lowered 
into the tomb, they too will collapse and with them the whole 
system: torpor, heat and decay will have their way at last. 
Then the procession passes out of sight and sound, and with 
it the moment of horror. One remembers gratefully and with 
relief other scenes from the same town: children playing in 
the shaded streets, flowering like the nearby corn out of the 
very rock; infants being dandled amid laughter and admira- 
tion. Another generation is growing up to replace the ghosts. 

The emotive quality of Sicilian funerals is purposely con- 
trived: like all religious ceremonies in the island they are 
spectacular pageants intended to overwhelm participant and 
onlooker alike at every level of their being. Even fifty years 
ago most people in Sicily belonged to a burial guild which 
ensured an impressive funeral for its members, all of whom 
paraded in white hooded dresses, with slits at eye and mouth, 
to accompany the coffin to its final resting-place. If these 
impressive costumes are now obsolete, the funeral itself, like 
all the fundamental events in the human cycle birth, mar- 
riage, and death is still hedged about with all the elements 
of mystery. The ceremonies which accompany them have 
not been tucked out of sight, as has happened in so many 
countries of Europe: since they are still acknowledged to be 
significant and portentous not only to immediate relatives 
but to the whole community, they have become clamorous 
with music and fireworks, and beribboned with processions. 

To the south of Ragusa lies a town which in many re- 
spects forms its corollary, Modica, a place renowned through- 
out the Middle Ages for its recalcitrant and independent 
attitude towards the foreign conqueror. The county of 
Modica belonged to the Chiaramonte, one of the most 5 
famous and powerful families of Sicily, members of which 
had once aspired to the throne. Covering an area of hun- 
dreds of square miles in very rugged country, it was for 


centuries the strongest fief in the island and a constant source 
of danger to the central authority. These inland towns, most 
of them Sicel foundations, played little part in the Greek 
history of Sicily, for that age was dominated by the sea. With 
the coming of the Arabs and later when the great Norman 
and Spanish families started to accumulate land in their own 
names, they became the capitals of miniature private empires, 
against which the nominal kings or viceroys were obliged to 
wage almost ceaseless warfare not only to exact dues but even 
as a means of self-defence. 

The strongholds of Sicily are for the most part built on 
mountains or on the coast. Modica is a notable exception, for 
it lies unashamedly in a deep valley, stretching a short way 
up both sides of a pronounced spur. At all points it is sur- 
rounded by high ground: city walls were never built, for they 
would have been overlooked and easily scaled. The advan- 
tage of such a position is obvious. Although the town could 
put up little resistance to capture, once fallen into enemy 
hands it could soon be rendered untenable by brigandage. 
From the surrounding hills marauding bands of guerrillas 
could swoop down on the low-lying town, as indefensible 
now by the enemy as it had been previously by its own citi- 
zens. The guerrillas were able to carry out their attack and 
retreat with impunity to mountains more rocky and forbid- 
ding than any other Sicilian range, their grey stone never 
entirely tamed by grass or trees. 

The most picturesque approach to Modica is from the 
south up the valley of the river which bears its name. The 
spur dividing the two forks of the V shape, according to 
which the town is composed, rises immediately ahead, 
covered with innumerable tiers of square openings, arranged 
according to no regular plan and apparently cut out of the 
rock itself. At closer sight these take form as houses, built 
of grey stone, ordered in terraces up the steep incline of the 
spur, so neatly stacked that they seem two-dimensional, like 
the backcloth of a stage town before the paint has been 
added. The extreme point of the spur which dominates 


Modica is occupied by a monument which in any country 
would be curious but in Sicily is quite extraordinary: a vast 
clock standing quite alone, not on a tower or any other 
building, but flush with the rock, as though it too, like the 
houses, had been excavated from the mountainside a clock 
which shows the correct hour. In Sicily time is still the ser- 
vant, not the master of man : the hours and minutes, far from 
assuming the important position accorded them by the rest 
of Europe, are treated with the utmost contempt Time here 
is gauged subjectively, by the heart, not by clocks or watches. 
If an hour is appointed for a meeting or engagement, it is 
never to be taken literally: one attends when the spirit moves, 
which usually happens an hour or longer after the specified 
time. For this reason the huge clock in Modica, its face 
newly painted white, marking time accurate to the minute, 
seems as out of place as a sundial would be for timing a race, 
It is rendered all the more incongruous by the rhythm of the 
town, which, if possible, is slower than that of most Sicilian 
places. The carters stop in mid-street to exchange news or 
merely to drowse, the young men sit all morning drinking 
coffee and talking, the children make dust castles in the 
street oblivious of the regular ticking of the great clock, 
unhurried, without impatience, following a different, more 
leisurely rhythm than that of the mechanical age. 

The church of S. Giorgio stands half-way up the central 
spur, in that part of the town known as Modica Alta. There 
are no fewer than 250 steps in its introductory staircase, ar- 
ranged in four wide oval flights which, at the point of inter- 
section, become landings. These landings coincide with side 
streets running horizontally between the houses along the 
mountain side: the intersecting alleys are composed of flights 
o steps. The naturally overwhelming position of the cJbircfe 
is accentuated by the fact that one mounts, not in a straight 
line, but round the continually curving stairway, as th&figii 
tacking in a boat, so that the actual time taken in ascending 
is considerably prolonged. After such a meanckriiig intro- 
duction, which arouses hope to the highest pi fell, all i>nt the 

greatest building would appear to fail. The church of S. 
Giorgio does not fail. It is conceived and executed on the 
grand scale, with a broad base containing five doors and rising 
in three storeys to a great height which seems all the loftier 
for being silhouetted. The church's distinctive feature is the 
convex central section, which, rising with six Corinthian 
columns on each tier, assumes the character almost of a half- 
tower, narrowing to a belfry arch, surmounted by a clock 
and terminating in a half-cupola and decorated point. Thus 
the church, without losing strength, soars very high, com- 
bining the best features of a rounded tower with the power 
of an unbroken fajade. The points of similarity between this 
front and that of the cathedral at Ragusa, known to have 
been designed by Rosario Gagliardi, make it probable that 
this church too was the work of the Notinese architect. In 
each case he has chosen to build on steeply sloping ground, 
an ideal site for a baroque church, which by its very nature 
is meant to be seen only from the front: the flowing lines 
which delineate the upper part are seen to best advantage 
against the sky, and the rest of the building blends har- 
moniously with the rocky background. 

Another church in Modica that of S. Maria di Betlem 
has a particular interest, for on its west wall is nailed a 
plaque, about twelve feet above the ground, marking the 
level of water which in late September 1902 flooded the town, 
causing widespread destruction. The two torrenti which flow 
down on either side of the spur to form the River Modica 
had that year burst their banks as a result of heavy autumnal 
rains. For centuries the town had watched these streams, 
normally weak and docile creatures, grow furious in the 
autumn, like animals on heat. The habitual trickle of water, 
as though bearing fruit with the surrounding orange trees 
and vines, would rise in a week to the extreme level of the 
bank, while the still September nights would reverberate 
to the thunder of swollen waters. But though they -raged 
every year at the same season, they kept within bounds, they 
did not attack. Like angry, well-bred dogs who manage 



always to retain self-control, they belonged to the community 
and were tolerated. Then one night, after particularly heavy 
rains, the dogs went mad, flew out of control, and ran amok 
among the people. They coursed through the houses and 
churches of the defenceless valley town, seeking human 
blood. They found it. Men, women, and children, to the 
number of a hundred and eleven, fell prey to the mad ani- 
mals. Neither church nor palace was respected: like a bar- 
barian host the waters indiscriminately annihilated. When 
the flood, after three days, had receded, the people of Modica 
buried those dead who had not been swept downstream, and 
took a vow that no similar disaster should ever occur again. 
Since these dogs were immortal and inalienable, they would 
have to be muzzled. The torrents which formerly had been 
allowed to parade openly through the town, to breed and 
form canals so multiple that Modica was known as the 
Sicilian Venice, were now covered up with stone walls, hid- 
den like sewers, buried alive. If Modica has lost her ancient 
aquatic beauty, she has gained her safety: the beasts will never 
more run wild. As the town expands to the south, the River 
Modica, a potential menace, is also being rendered harmless. 
Workmen are engaged in constructing walls strong enough 
to hem in and canalise its autumn waters. Great blocks of 
stone are being set in position on either bank, as high as the 
Spanish fortifications at Syracuse and even more formidable. 
In the centre of its wide, rocky bed runs the river, no more 
than a slow trickle from a household tap, as though purposely 
minimising its own size to prove the precautions quite un- 
necessary and rather ridiculous. But in September this river 
drains a whole range of the Iblean mountains, just as its 
sister river the Assinaros, in spring no wider than a rivulet, 
proved in autumn so turbulent a barrier to tlie Athenians 
retreating from Syracuse that they were cut down by thou- 
sands and stained its waters with blood. They are moody, 
seasonal creatures, these Sicilian rivers, dark terrestrial 
streams with insanity in their blood, inherited from ante- 
diluvian ancestors/ Modica has learnt^ Walls, which 


were never required to guard a town too remote and powerful 
for any enemy attack, are now being raised with urgency, 
double walls as though to form a moat, the town's first line of 
defence against the incursions of nature. 

The other great church of Modica, S. Pietro, is remarkable 
chiefly for the statues of the twelve apostles which in the 
form of a square decorate its steep steps. The imaginative 
arrangement of these works almost redeems their blatancy, 
for they are all attitudinising and display their particular 
symbols too ostentatiously, as though to compensate for their 
uniform facial expressions. Only one feature about them is 
remarkable; their hair, which is fine and straight, reminis- 
cent of an engraving, in contrast to the curls of most baroque 
statues, but this too is somewhat spoiled by the metal haloes 
which have been added to each head. The facade gains 
immeasurably by standing out against the skyline: it is a 
wide, flat front, only the pilasters and three doors being 
decorated, with four statues on the second tier, rendered 
anonymous by the blazing light. 

In this church a wedding has just been celebrated. The 
bridal pair kneel in front of the high altar holding lighted 
candles. The girl's hair, parted in the centre and falling 
down to her shoulders, is covered by a silk handkerchief. 
She wears a pale blue dress with a train, embroidered with 
pink flowers of silk, and her neck is encircled with coral 
from which hangs a small golden cross. Benediction having 
been given by the priest, the sacristan comes forward to take 
the candles from the hands of the couple. He puts the two 
flames together so that they form one, then blows them out 
with a angle breath. Everyone shows relief, for, if no pre- 
cautions were taken and one candle were allowed to be 
extinguished before the other, whichever of the couple had 
been holding it would be the first to die. 

The priest has returned to the sacristy and now the couple 
walk down the aisle and out of the church door, followed by 
the crowd. The new husband is self-confident as a peacock: 
the bride she can be no more than fifteen holds her dark 


eyes downcast. Sunshine and conversation break out to- 
gether; on the church steps friends throw nuts and com at 
the bridal pair, that their marriage may be fruitful. All is 
laughter as the husband helps his wife up into the first cart 
and they drive away, followed by friends and guests, some 
in carts, others on foot. 

The procession arrives at the bride's house, one of the dens 
arranged along the mountainside. Before the newly mar- 
ried couple enter the house, they sprinkle wine on the door, 
then break the bowl which has held the wine. They enter the 
single room, decorated with flowers, and are followed by the 
guests, who crowd round in a circle to watch the bride's 
mother perform an essential rite, the presentation to the 
couple of a spoonful of honey : the husband licks one half, 
his bride the other. Then she distributes to the bystanders 
broiled chickpeas, almond cake with honey and beakers 
of wine, as a prelude to the nuptial banquet of macaroni and 
sausages. Everyone eats heartily: for all save the young 
couple this is the culminating point of the day. 

Later, singing, dancing and music will continue until mid- 
night, when the bridegroom will take home his bride. There 
will be no honeymoon, only a week without work, but in 
the marriage contract it is stipulated that within a year the 
husband shall take his wife to some great celebration or 
patronal procession, perhaps, appropriately, to the feast of S. 
Venera in Avola. Also within the same period, the couple 
will have to attend a further religious ceremony. They must 
go and hear mass, kneel together before the altar, and each 
again hold that emblem of their love, a lighted wax candle, 
this time provided by the church, in order to obtain the 
priest's blessing. That second ceremony is called the spunsa- 
liziu, and is a confirmatory seal set on the marriage. 

Beeswax candles and honey, ardour and sweetness: die 
part played by these symbols reaches back past all written 
records to remote antiquity. Just as the throwing of com 
directly carries on a Roman custom, it is likely that hei^e is 
a continuation of those libations of honey which weare offered 


to the goddess of love even before the Greeks held Sicily. As 
Empedocles writes in one of his poems, Aphrodite should be 
made propitious by an offering of honey, and that is pre- 
cisely the unvoiced wish of all who have been attending this 
wedding in Modica. Here, in one of the towns which has 
been most shut off from change, where ancient customs 
have lingered on and on, the large part played by candles 
and the ritual presentation of honey may well be a survival 
of the rites which Daedalus knew and which he carried out 
in unique and inimitable fashion. 



THE town of Noto, like Catania, was destroyed by the earth- 
quake of 1693, and rose again in the baroque style. There 
the resemblance ends. For while Catania has now become a 
complex modern city, a great commercial port, its churches 
side by side with shops, dominated by the smoking crest of 
Etna, Noto has remained an eighteenth-century country 
town of golden stone, standing on the slopes of a hill with 
a view on three sides of almond trees, row upon row, their 
leaves in March the most delicate shade of green, a shade 
which springs new at eve'ry glance. The ancient town of 
Noto lies some ten miles north-west of the present site, higher 
up on the hills, a silent ruin of fallen masonry, more totally 
destroyed than some of the Greek cities, with here and there 
part of a wall erect, the only remains of a flourishing town 
whose history goes back to the time of the Sicels and which 
the Arabs established as capital of one of the three valleys into 
which the whole island was then divided. After the earthquake 
the survivors, unwilling to perpetuate the memory of so total a 
disaster, and not obliged by considerations of defence or trade 
to rebuild in the same position, moved farther down the river 
and founded a new town on the slopes of a hill overlooking, 
to the east, the Gulf of Noto. It was no insignificant town 
that had been destroyed, but an important provincial centre^ 
with a strong architectural tradition going back to the time 
of Matteo Carnelivari, the home of many noble families and 
the seat of richly endowed churches and monasteries. As af 
Catania, the disaster imparted a strong communal spirit 
which, combined with the wealth and taste bf the leadfag 
citizens, helps to explain why the present town is such a 


rich cluster of noble buildings: churches and palaces, monas- 
teries, and convents, 

Of all the towns of Sicily, Noto is perhaps the most uni- 
form in period and style: nothing whatever, not even the 
earth beneath the buildings, remains of the original founda- 
tion: in its entirety it belongs to the eighteenth century. 
This uniformity more complete even than that of Palladian 
Bath is heightened by the unique colour of the stone from 
which Noto is built, a golden limestone, ranging from an 
almost crocus-yellow through fawnish sand to rose, yet keep- 
ing always within the limits of honey-colour. This stone 
possesses such a positive quality that even the simplest and 
most ordinary buildings are redeemed from plainness, as the 
faces of southern people are by their sunburned complexion. 
Thus, a facade of no great artistry which in the grey stone of 
Catania might well appear dull here seems pleasing and per- 
haps more distinguished than it is. 

But Noto did not fail to produce artists worthy of its mar- 
vellous materials. In this comparatively small community, at 
the crucial moment of its history, a group of local architects, 
under the patronage of enlightened nobles and ecclesiastics, 
created, by patient work and self-sacrifice, without great 
resources, an entire town of distinguished buildings, in a 
style which deserved to be called the perfection of restrained 
baroque. One has only to look at the neighbouring town of 
Avola, rebuilt at the same time after it had been destroyed 
in the same disaster, a shabby, ugly, tasteless place, to realise 
the immensity of Note's achievement. In one sense, it was 
an advantage to be able to build on virgin soil: an advantage 
which very rarely falls to a group of architects. On the other 
hand, simply because they were provincials starting from the 
beginning, there lurked a twin danger : either of pomposity 
and pretentiousness or of ponderous, studied pastiche. These 
pitfalls were avoided, and the advantage turned to good 
account, for Noto is a co-ordinated whole, its piazzas not 
mere widenings of the street, but designed to allow balanced 
views, its churches well sited to command the greatest pos- 

NOTO 225 

sible effect from dominant positions. The town is extensive, 
the churches are conceived on a large scale, the convents are 
constructed to hold communities of a hundred or more yet 
all this was achieved by survivors who had lost everything 
but their lives and land in the recent disaster. It would have 
been impossible without munificence on a grand scale, and 
in the case of at least one church that of San Salvatore 
such endowment is attested by documents. 

Over and above the uniformity lent by its golden stone, 
Noto has a distinctive architectural style showing much of 
Rome and a little of Spain. The underlying principle of all 
the facades is the balance between imposing masses and 
classic columns, for Noto usually dispenses with carvings on 
the columns, cherubim, mouldings that have no integral part 
in the structure and, especially, with statues. The tendency 
to severity is counterbalanced by the colour of the stone and 
in several instances by the elliptical form of the fafade. The 
harmony of each building in itself and in relation to its sister 
churches must be almost unique in a local school, such as the 
architects of Noto composed; there is in the whole town not 
a single instance of disproportion, and a newcomer might be 
tempted to attribute the various churches to a single archi- 
tect of genius and mature experience. This intuition bears 
some relation to the true facts, which, however, have re- 
mained hidden in the archives of Noto and other Sicilian 
towns, and have never before been revealed. One thing is 
certain: an architect of Noto named Rosario Gagliardi was 
not only responsible for the Cathedral of Ragusa but also 
designed the chief churches of his native town and played an 
important part in planning many of the lesser buildings. 
In the light of these achievements, this hitherto almost mi- 
known figure deserves to rank with the greatest baroque 
architects of Europe. It will be many years before he re- 
ceives the recognition which is his due, but since he has been 
denied it already for over two centuries, tie delay will merely 
add to his triumph. Noto's golden stone, which provi<fes a 
fitting monument to the golden age of baroque^ will hence- 


forth be linked in the history of art with the name of 

The largest piazza of the town is dominated by the 
Cathedral, which stands at the head of three flights of steps, 
extending the whole width of the facade and giving an im- 
pression of loftiness, majesty and calm. This spaciousness, a 
large-handed gift as though unlimited flights were there for 
the asking, adds greatly to the apparent size of the cathedral; 
and the chiaroscuro of the steps becomes a decorative feature 
of the front, no less integral than the vertical moulding on 
the fajade. This spaciousness does not extend, however, to 
the sides, which look on to narrow streets. Such siting was 
deliberate, as though to hide a bad profile, and yet the walls 
are far from unattractive, being decorated with pilasters, 
ornamented windows, alcoves and renaissance-style doors, 
and the golden stone in the dark alleys takes on the colour of 
heather-honey. The facade itself has a simple, flat appear- 
ance, its plane broken only by eight columns on the lower 
and four on the upper storey. It is flanked by two campanili, 
which make the width of the whole facade greater than its 
height. Churches with two bell-towers are rare in Sicily: at 
Catania there is another, the church of S. Francesco, but it is 
marred by a dull and heavy central section. 

On the upper storey four statues of the Evangelists the 
only statues to grace a fajade in Noto crown the upward 
lines of the four extreme columns. The campanili are square 
towers, pierced by a single arch on each side, flanked by 
pilasters and surmounted by pediments, while the stone 
cupolas, rising from a square base and tapering to a point, 
soar slightly above the level of the pediment which crowns 
the central section of the front. The dome, erected in 1872 
in place of the original which had been destroyed by earth 
tremors, is in keeping with the camfanili, its eight windows 
being separated by pairs of pilasters, the lines of which are 
continued on the dome in mouldings which taper away as 
they reach the lantern. Lichen has modified the original 
colour of the stone from which this dome, like the campanili, 


NOTO 227 

is constructed, so that from a distance it appears to be made 
of beaten gold. 

At left and right are elegant baroque palaces in harmony 
with the cathedral, and on the opposite side of this immense 
piazza stands the town hall, a distinguished building which 
has recently been disfigured by the addition of another storey, 
in the same style, but ruining the lines of the original, which 
is essentially a long, low structure. Along the straight f ajade, 
which curves outwards in the centre to form a convex pro- 
jection, and extending to the two short sides of the rectangu- 
lar building, runs an arcade of exceptional power. The wide 
round arches are divided by forceful Ionic half-columns 
which, above the cornice, support a stone balustrade. The 
elliptical form of the centre, which the arcade follows, is 
repeated at the two corners of the f ajade, these being softened 
by concave arches, and at the two remaining corners of the 
building, where the arcade finishes with a bold and most 
effective flourish of two concave arches at right angles to 
each other. On the three sides to which it extends this arcade 
hides the windows in shadow: on the fourth side they can be 
seen, large, stately, and quite simple, surmounted by pedi- 
ments. This arcade, which combines the grandeur of a colon- 
nade with the intimacy of a cloister, provides an ordered 
effect of light and shade: the graceful curves are exactly 
adequate to prevent solemnity, while the balustrade, which 
before the addition of a second storey stood out against the 
sky, provides the decoration necessary above the bare en- 

The comparatively simple church of San Salvatore com- 
pletes this square, the most beautiful in Sicily, in which the 
various buildings balance one another as effectively as the 
different features of a fa9ade. Yet the piazza is only part of 
Note's wealth. Of the other churches by Gagliardi, that of 
the Cbllegio is the most elaborate, while S. Domenico, wMch 
takes the form of a simple harmonious mass, sweeping out in 
a wide curve to meet the sun, shows that the architect ootdd 
create in more than one idiom. 


But here as in Ragusa the baroque interiors fail to live up 
to the facades. Yellow glass in the windows often stamps the 
light so that the white stucco walls and roof are in every 
corner gilded, and every harsh line and angular corner 
softened. The effectiveness of this simple but revolutionary 
procedure is undeniable, but after the first delighted impres- 
sion, doubts give place to complete dismay. Gone now are 
the shadowy, evocative corners, pools of prayer, the subtle 
interplay of light and shade, symbols of grace and sin, gone 
the sudden colour of the Madonna's dress in a painting at a 
side altar, gone the mystery: this veil of yellow light has been 
thrown over all, reducing the most individual hue to a com- 
mon colour. It is as though a country in which money has 
been scarce and highly valued were violently inundated with 
a mass of inflationary synthetic gold, which, while giving a 
false appearance of wealth, renders valueless all former 
riches. This gilded light, which is such a feature of baroque 
churches, is only one among a number of devices for human- 
ising the interior, for reducing it, in fact, to a fashionable 
drawing-room. The glass chandeliers, arranged in patterns 
between the arches like so many dew-drawn spiders* webs, 
are the exact equivalent of those to be found in fine houses 
of the eighteenth century. The abundance of cherubim, or 
more simply the faces of pretty boys and girls, executed no 
longer according to a strict iconography but at the artist's 
whim, are again of no religious significance their counter- 
parts grace the stairways of contemporary mansions. The gilt 
frames, which hold canvases whose subject is wherever pos- 
sible far removed from the essentials of religion, are in form 
and detail the same as those which hold mirrors in my lady's 
boudoir. The frescoes with their sumptuous golds and 
pinks, like a feast of strawberries and cream and sweet little 
iced cakes, are in almost every respect the frescoes of the 
salon. Plain chant has been superseded by a string orchestra 
playing in the gilded choir-loft music without words, lest the 
vague feeling of mawkishness should be shattered by stern 
doctrinal formulas. Even the very decoration of the walls 

NOTO 229 

tibe pilasters and rounded arches, gilded capitals and intri- 
cate cornice serve to slur over the essential form of the 
building, which is a cross. In these baroque interiors every- 
thing is designed to make the worshipper feel at home: every- 
thing must please the eye and excite the fancy. The Renais- 
sance has come: all's right with the world. Suffering and 
penance have not even a chapel remaining to themselves. 
As for mystery, the golden light has sent it flying to the hills. 
It is true that in every age there are points of resemblance 
between secular and religious art even the mosaics of the 
Cappella Palatina have their counterpart in the Zisa but in 
the baroque churches the process has gone far beyond a mere 
interchange of ideas: religion the whole of reality, even 
is becoming secularised. There is taking place what can only 
be called a softening of the spirit, evident in a neglect of 
essentials. One of the elements in religious worship beauti- 
ful decoration has been singled out and made an end in 
itself. It has even been distorted, so that theatricality and 
trompe I' ceil are now practised for their own sake. The life 
of God is no longer depicted on the walls, but incidents, 
imaginary for the most part, from the life of some more or 
less obscure saint. There is no longer a dominant figure of 
Christ in the apse, no longer lofty arches lifting man's 
spirit heavenwards, no longer the austere plain stone to 
symbolise man's imprisonment on earth: instead a pink- 
and-gilded room which seems made not for prayer but for 

There are other fine exteriors in Noto besides those by 
Gagliardi: the church of the Carmine has a simple concave 
fagade, pilasters replacing the usual columns; so too has the 
Monte Vergine, distinguished by its two wedge-shaped bel- 
fries, and its almost crocus-yellow stone. The Chksa del 
Crocifisso compensates for its unfinished facade with a fine, 
steeply sloping dome, its stone even more gilded by liehm 
than that of the Cathedral. 

Of the many palaces the most richly decorated is the fan- 
tastic Palazzo ViHadorata, built in 1731. Its faptde is 


rectangular, broken by a large doorway and two rows of 
windows, the upper with balconies. All over Sicily the bal- 
cony is the dominant feature of the houses. It is not built 
primarily as an airy terrace against the heat, for at midday 
shutters are closed and all life withdraws to the cool, dark 
interiors. Its primary purpose is to provide a vantage-point 
for observing without being observed. From a balcony the 
whole length of a street can be surveyed, conversation on the 
pavement below can be heard, passers-by recognised, trans- 
actions witnessed and, if the town overlooks sea or moun- 
tains, these can be contemplated without interruption. Yet, 
by a simple step backwards the observer nearly always a 
woman can lose herself in the shadow of the room, so that 
she steals her secrets without being seen. Balconies are little 
theatre-boxes, providing the best view of the stage and actors 
below. But the women who sit or stand in them wear no 
fine clothes, no flowers or jewellery: since the balconies often 
look out f rom bedrooms, they may step into their boxes wear- 
ing no more than a negligee in order to catch between dreams 
a glimpse of events below. Because in Sicily all business and 
most recreation and conversation are carried on in the streets, 
the advantages of a balcony are considerable: practically 
nothing can escape its surveillance. To look from a balcony 
is to possess temporarily an almost Olympian power: the 
women who sit knitting or weaving on their narrow sills 
might be the Fates themselves. 

Balconies belong neither within the house nor outside it, 
but, like poets, exist beyond themselves, observing and re- 
cording a life in which they do not participate directly. They 
are lonely, attendant beings, for ever shut out from the inti- 
macy of the house, for ever hovering like seagulls that en- 
circle a ship at sea. 

To the architect they present an opportunity for relieving 
an otherwise dull wall, an opportunity which in Sicily is 
generally neglected, the balconies, devoid of all grace, being 
simple rectangular areas of stone on stone supports, and the 
balustrade of crude metalwork. In Syracuse and Noto, how- 

NOTO 231 

ever, and in parts of Modica, balconies are highly elegant 
features of the buildings, with a complex form; in many 
balustrades the metalwork curves outwards to give a pompous, 
inflated appearance in harmony with the eighteenth-century 
building. Flowerpots are sometimes hung in the curve of 
the metalwork, which may itself blossom into the shape of 
a passion flower at the corners of the balcony. On one palace 
in Noto the central supports are longer than those at the sides, 
and the balcony comes out in a half-circle of bulging metal- 
work, like a scallop shell. 

The combination of balconies and window-decoration in 
the Palazzo Villadorata produces a cumulative effect of light 
and shade, ponderous weight and airy grace, of tension and 
agitation, to be equalled in no other baroque building of 
Sicily. For the most part the brackets are carved in mons- 
trous grotesque shapes, perhaps inspired by the gargoyles of 
Gothic cathedrals. But where the medieval objects were pur- 
posely made ugly in order to frighten away evil spirits from 
the house of God, the baroque monsters have quite another 
function. The important thing is not that they should be 
ugly, but simply that they should appear fanciful, fantastic, 
extraordinary, anything but merely human or animal, for 
by now the normal has come to be considered dull. The 
cumulative effect of these creatures, however monstrous the 
individual combinations, is considered pleasing: the quaint 
and outlandish have been taken so far on the road of hideous 
ugliness that, going beyond this category, they arrive at a 
form of beauty. The two dangers are vulgarity and absurdity 
ifcoth signs of a lack of control which is inherent in this 
extreme form of baroque decoration. Stability is found in 
preoccupation with detail: each cranny of these balcony 
brackets is carved deep and irregularly, to extend the chiaros- 
curo to the least noticeable parts. Just as in the frescoes which 
cover the ceilings of Sicilian baroque churches the figures 
themselves have become unimportant beside their constituent 
paints, to such an extent that the general impression, even 
after attentive gazing, is of an almost abstract colour com- 


plex, so in the external decoration of buildings, the monstrous 
composite figures serve only as surfaces to be encrusted with 
carving, in order to produce an abstract pattern of light and 
shade. The subject has been annihilated by the artist beneath 
a welter of form. 

Of these general principles the balconies on the Palazzo 
Villadorata are a perfect example, for the richness and extent 
of the chiaroscuro are extreme. The architect has taken an 
ironic pleasure in conceiving the whole facade on classic 
lines: thus the central doorway is correctly Ionic and sur- 
mounted by a frieze (which, however, depicts a row of 
gryphons) and a cornice which serves as a balcony for the 
window immediately above. This in turn is flanked by pilas- 
ters and surmounted by an orthodox pediment. The lower 
windows are comparatively simple: a broad sill on florid 
supports takes the same form as a broken cornice above the 
architrave, which is decorated with floral devices. These are 
totally eclipsed by the upper row of larger windows which in 
extravagance of decoration could hardly be bettered. The 
sides are ornamented with garlands, and the cornice which 
projects above each is supported at either end by female 
heads, between which is a monstrous mask entangled with 
more garlands. But it is the balconies which display the most 
riotous carving: great bulging metalwork gives a graceful 
upward sweep to the rectangular stone bases, which are 
supported by five brackets. These supports are in two parts, 
a short vertical piece extending downwards and a long hori- 
zontal section. Each is usually decorated with monstrous 
head or body, human or animal, and while the brackets on 
each balcony form a unity, there is no relation between the 
six different balconies, each having a different set of figures, 
cherubim, Moors, lions, female heads, horses and old men. 
These carvings, in fact the facade itself, display southern 
baroque at its zenith, in the manner of the buildings at Lecce 
or some of the Jesuit churches in Brazil. The fantastic 
figures, caught in the act of taking flight, the bulging metal- 
work acting as sails caught by the wind, belong not with 

NOTO 233 

Gagliardfs facades but to the world created by Churriguera 
and his followers. 

Despite this exceptional building Noto as a town remains 
faithful to the Roman tradition, although it finds its own 
originality within that framework. The Palazzo Villadorata 
is merely a diversion, a brilliant display-piece included in a 
programme of more ponderous compositions. Because all are 
executed in that unique stone, its colour balanced between 
orange and fawn, the buildings of Noto remain in the 
memory after similar churches built of grey stone liave been 
forgotten, like golden trinkets which endure long after their 
silver counterparts have worn away. 

The town is a honeycomb of golden stone anyone, even 
without the Daedalus myth in mind, would be forced to that 
analogy by the glinting domes, the varying shades of stone 
which suggest the different tones in the natural work of the 
bees, the uniformity and symmetry of the whole. At Acragas 
the Greeks had built in materials of similar colour, and both 
in the mosaics and exterior decoration of Monreale gold pre- 
dominates: the colour of a golden honeycomb again and 
again makes its appearance in Sicilian art, a colour which 
matches the natural ornaments, citrus fruit and nespole^ and 
even the whole countryside gilded by sunlight. Such a tradi- 
tion of golden artistry must have a source, for nothing is so 
rare as absolute originality in choice of form or colour. Artis- 
tic excellence is not invented anew in each generation, but 
handed down as a heritage, and no great art can be achieved 
by repudiating the past. Perhaps, therefore, this tradition 
takes its rise from Daedalus's original masterpiece, which first 
tried to emulate the Sicilian sun, to distil the island's pollen 
into a form which would endure. 

The various clues to the legend which have already 
emerged can now be resumed in two groups. On the one 
hand, such details as the giving of honey to Christian neo- 
phytes and the wedding at Modica have shown that in Sicily 
honey has had and still has a ritual significance stemming, 
perhaps, from a cult to which Daedalus was giving expres- 


sion in Ills offering at Erice. These clues lend strength to a 
literal interpretation of Diodorus's story. On the other hand, 
it has become clear that the artefact cgn also be taken as sub- 
suming such diverse arts as poetry, gold-engraving and sculp- 
ture, though painting seems to be excluded. These were 
carried on, after Diodorus's day, by Christianity, and were 
developed in characteristic form by each invading people. 
They were usually dedicated to religious ends and found 
within the island a perfection of expression seldom if ever 
achieved elsewhere. Now Noto has shed light on a further 
facet of the legend: the honeycomb seems to symbolise, either 
in its own form as a particular object or as allegory, a pre- 
dilection for working in gold or materials of golden colour. 


Monte Pettegrino 

NOT since the days of Angevin rule, overthrown by the War 
of the Sicilian Vespers, had Sicily known such misgovero- 
ment as under the Bourbons, a regime which Gladstone, not 
without justice, called the negation of God. Rule from a 
great distance inevitably proved misrule, and the arts were 
left to languish, so that no notable works were produced in 
the nineteenth century before Garibaldi's liberation. Only 
one of the Bourbon rulers, King Charles, proved himself 
enlightened, and he has left behind a monument to his 
interest in the island, a golden cloak for the statue of S. 
Rosalia, which stands high above the capital city in the saint's 
own mountain-shrine. 

The crown-shaped mass of Monte Pellegrino dominates 
Palermo physically and also spiritually. Perhaps the one is 
the consequence of the other, for spiritual forces must be 
actualised if they are fully to appeal at every level, or even 
to appeal at all to those who by nature or education are able 
to realise them only through experience of the senses. Few 
other peaks have such a memorable form and few are so well 
placed to be remembered, for the promontory neither over- 
powers nor loses effect, as Etna does at Catania, by lying too 
far away. The steep sides which rise not to a single point but 
to an irregular, slightly inclined plane are on the east and west, 
and the rose-grey south flank, facing the city, stands all day 
in the spotlight of the sun. The mountain is so called be- 
cause of the pilgrimages made to its summit in honour of S. 
Rosalia, said to have been the daughter of Duke Sinibaldo, 
who was King William IFs nephew. She was born in 1130 
and lived in penance on this mountain for several years until 


her death at an early age. Her bones were found on the 
promontory in the summer of 1624 by some hermits to whom 
the saint had appeared in a miraculous vision; they were car- 
ried to Palermo where they brought to an end the plague 
which was then ravaging the city. Since that time S. Rosalia 
has been venerated in Palermo, the third of the great cities to 
put itself under the protection of a holy virgin, for Syracuse 
already counted S. Lucia as patron, and Catania S. Agata. 

The mountain itself is calcareous, its grey stone acquiring 
a rose tint at the surface. Except on the south side it is 
rugged and covered with scrub, prickly pears and occasional 
trees. Pilgrims have for centuries climbed over a thousand 
feet to visit the sanctuary, and every year on the fourth of 
September a special procession winds its way up the slope to 
pay honour to S. Rosalia. Recently a modern road to the 
summit was constructed, so that pilgrims who even now 
climb barefooted to the sanctuary achieve a less heroic and 
penitential feat. This road, with its alpine, looping corners, 
for most of its length gyrating up the south side only, pro- 
vides an uninterrupted view of the city. Half-way to the 
summit stands the Albergo Castello Utveggio, a pink stucco 
building playing at being a Norman-Arab castle and failing 
lamentably. To some extent it detracts from the prospect of 
Monte Pellegrino as viewed from the sea and the city: its 
colour is too blatant, its style too ostentatious. The Normans, 
who excelled in the construction of mountain strongholds, 
knew better, choosing for their castles a grey or brown stone 
and a style that harmonised with the surroundings. Never- 
theless this modern castle does command an appropriately 
sweeping view at the south-west angle of the mountain, a 
view which includes every corner of the Conca d'Oro. In 
autumn when the groves are hung with citrus fruit, this 
sweep of country justifies its golden epithet, but even in 
spring the medley of sea, city and citrus groves is among 
the most beautiful civilised views in Sicily. The inventors 
of place-names, the primary poets, did well to call this bay 
Panormus, the harbour of everything, the all-harbour, for 


not only does it give the impression of being wide enough 
to shelter the whole woild's shipping, but it seems to em- 
brace in a single panorama the Mediterranean, the sky, and 
even the sunshine itself an effect produced partly by the 
mountains, partly by the extent of the city. 

Almost at the summit of the mountain lies the sanctuary 
of S. Rosalia, consisting of a convent and the celebrated 
grotto, a deep, lofty chasm in the rock where the saint used 
to meditate and pray. This cavern has been made into a 
chapel, with an altar set deep into the rock. The water 
which seeps from the ceiling and walls is held to be miracu- 
lous, and proofs of its efficacy are heaped near the altar in 
the form of crutches discarded by men and women once 
lame who have been cured by the saint's intercession; by 
plastic reproductions of hands, arms, and legs, each brought 
by someone who has been granted a cure in that particular 
part of the body; and by paintings of illness or accident, such 
as a man being knocked down by a bus, all cases in which the 
saint has intervened to prevent or mitigate disaster. They 
are talismans of a living religion, and if they are not beautiful 
that is of slight importance beside the fact of faith. 

Inevitably this rocky sanctuary recalls the grottoes of early 
Sicilian nature cults. The holy cavern appeals to the same 
profound instinct, but is not for that reason to be classed 
with such sanctuaries as the one at Acragas. It is not simply 
that the former is lofty and at least dimly lighted. Both 
grottoes in fact offer an almost similar point of departure 
indeed they must do in order to satisfy man's urgent demand 
in his religious worship for mysterious surroundings, for an 
atmosphere suggestive of the supernatural but the destina- 
tions to which they give access are as divergent as pos- 
sible: in one case matter, earth at its crudest; in the other 
heaven, and the Infinite. The circumstantial resemblance 
impressive at first is in the last resort superficial, and those 
who dismiss the Christian grottoes as a relic of paganism are 
mistaking the envelope for the letter, the binding for the 


Travellers to Sicily in the eighteenth and nineteenth cen- 
turies were genuinely shocked and horrified by this cave and 
its votive offerings, which they termed objects of supersti- 
tion. Now we have learned better than dogmatically to label 
this particular action holy and meritorious, and that gesture 
superstitious and repulsive : the roots of faith lie too deep in 
human personality for any superficial judgment, or perhaps 
for any human judgment at all. Not that the censure of 
historians and scientists will alter one least detail of the tra- 
dition: however loudly they cry that the bones found on 
Monte Pellegrino belong to the neolithic period, the prayer 
of faith will rise louder still: for all time S. Rosalia will be 
the patron saint of Palermo, while the sick will continue to 
pay pilgrimage to her sanctuary and bathe in the water from 
her grotto. 

Beyond the votive offerings and candles smoking in the 
damp air lies the central point of the shrine, a white marble 
statue of the saint reclining, clad in golden garments, the gift 
of Charles the Bourbon king. Above it an altar has been 
fashioned, so that mass can be said in the profoundest part 
of the grotto which is also a chapel, deep in the earth yet high 
above land and sea. 

As at Enna and Erice, the people have gone up on to a 
mountain to be nearer heaven, to pray to their patron, to 
identify their faith with a huge and immovable rock, and 
the statue of S. Rosalia, vfath its gilded cloak, gift of a 
foreign king, is yet one more variation on the original 
theme of a stranger fashioning a religious offering out of 


Modern Palermo 

PALERMO at the present day is a capital city and a provincial 
town, a metropolis and a village, a modern commercial 
centre and an Oriental bazaar set down between the moun- 
tains and the sea. A century ago it was still in the hands of 
aristocrats lordly with the palaces of princes and dukes 
but today the rich Palermitans prefer the convenience and 
comfort of modern apartments often in Milan or Paris. 
The hovels of the poor, however, have remained unchanged 
since the time of the Arab domination. It was they who 
made it their capital, and the Saracen town is still the centre 
of the city, as tightly packed as the rings at the heart of a 
beech tree. Here the markets are held all day, and, if there 
were customers, they would be held all night as well. The 
tables of fish and sausages, of mandarines and confectionery, 
of panelli and quagghie on both sides of the narrow street 
almost meet in the middle, so that the passer-by is more or 
less compelled to stop and by that fact to make a purchase. 
The hypnotic shouts of the vendors crying their wares in a 
sing-song voice descend, as soon as a customer approaches, 
into a cajoling, rapid patter, until a bargain is concluded. 
Then the sing-song starts again, untiring as the call of a bird. 
These vendors have pathetically little to sell, and many dis- 
play the meanest, most untempting wares a dozen diminu- 
tive and none-too-fresh fish or a few little syrupy sweets 
wrapped in coloured paper and will spend a whole day 
trying to trade them. For selling is their traditional, their sole 
means ^>f livelihood, and so all day long they wil sit or 
slouch beside their little tables, hoping by their incantations 
to lure an occasional purchaser. After each sale, however 



Modern Palermo 

'ALERMO at the present day is a capital city and a provincial 
awn, a metropolis and a village, a modern commercial 
:entre and an Oriental bazaar set down between the moun- 
ains and the sea. A century ago it was still in the hands of 
iristocrats lordly with the palaces of princes and dukes 
mt today the rich Palermitans prefer the convenience and 
:omfort of modern apartments often in Milan or Paris. 
The hovels of the poor, however, have remained unchanged 
dnce the time of the Arab domination. It was they who 
tnade it their capital, and the Saracen town is still the centre 
Df the city, as tightly packed as the rings at the heart of a 
seech tree. Here the markets are held all day, and, if there 
were customers, they would be held all night as well. The 
tables of fish and sausages, of mandarines and confectionery, 
of fanelli and quagghie on both sides of the narrow street 
almost meet in the middle, so that the passer-by is more or 
less compelled to stop and by that fact to make a purchase. 
The hypnotic shouts of the vendors crying their wares in a 
sing-song voice descend, as soon as a customer approaches, 
into a cajoling, rapid patter, until a bargain is concluded. 
Then the sing-song starts again, untiring as the call of a bird. 
These vendors have pathetically little to sell, and many dis- 
play the meanest, most untempting wares a dozen diminu- 
tive and none-too-fresh fish or a few little syrupy sweets 
wrapped in coloured paper and will spend a whole day 
trying to trade them. For selling is their traditional, their sole 
means *pf livelihood, and so all day long they will sit or 
slouch beside their little tables, hoping by their incantations 
to lure an occasional purchaser. After each sale, however 



insignificant, there follows a great sense of satisfaction, of 
pride and even of achievement, related not so much to the 
material success, to the fact that the price of a piece of bread 
has been won from an uncaring world, as to the feeling of 
fulfilment: the seller of a few pieces of confectionery can 
identify himself in this moment with the merchant who 
trades by the shipload. 

In and out of the tables and carts, a paradise of hide-and- 
seek, run the children, scuffling and fighting, playing with 
ball or coin, making a medley of shouts and laughter. They 
have no other home but the streets, these ragged, under- 
nourished waifs, and they resent the stranger as an intruder 
on their public privacy. According to their mood they beg 
or throw stones at him, inveigle or insult, and in any case 
are quite blameless. For in Palermo rich and poor live side 
by side, and although throughout the island there are many 
worse off, nowhere else are squalid conditions so juxtaposed 
with comfort and abundance, and therefore nowhere else so 

The passion for trading is not confined to the Saracen dis- 
trict. At dawn, simultaneously with the crowing cocks, 
throughout the city streets the vendors begin their cry a 
sound which is quite Eastern, rising and falling in quick 
succession. The man selling fresh beans cries: "Miele sono 
queste fave!" "Beans sweet as honey"; and in similar poeti- 
cal vein the fruitseller from Monreale boasts, "Pira butiti, 
si mancia e si vivi!" "Pears like butter: you drink as well 
as eat." The call to prayer, a thousand years ago, from the 
thin, flute-like minarets of the Mahommedan city, cannot 
have been markedly different, for these vendors do, above 
all, entreat and pray passionately so. Their goods comprise 
every imaginable commodity from goat's milk to cauli- 
flowers, from baskets to brushes, from wine to olives, and 
even at the earliest hours women, responding like divinities 
in a primitive play, step from sleep on to their balcojpies and 
let down their shopping basket on a piece of string. When 
it reaches the street the tradesman takes from it the crumpled 


paper-money and refills the basket with whatever the woman 
orders; the wares are drawn up, examined and commented 
upon; sometimes even lowered again, if they do not satisfy, 
to be exchanged for better. Later in the day, but still at an 
early hour, the street sellers take up their positions, in ranks 
three deep, to launch an attack on passers-by, as they go to 
work or simply promenade, with every variety of 

tion. Not only newspapers and soft drinks and ice-cream, but 
ties and fountain pens, sweets and votive candles, paintings 
of Monte Pellegrino and icons of the Madonna every 
assortment of decorative and useful article are offered for 
sale. Sometimes, in the narrowest streets, two or three rows 
of vendors completely block the pavement, so that pedes- 
trians are canalised into the road, and the occasional car is 
brought to a standstill. For in this city the car is deprived 
by law from using one of its principal weapons the horn: 
it therefore becomes a relatively helpless creature in the face 
of teeming crowds, often outdistanced by the prancing horse 
and cart. 

These swelling crowds are characteristic of Palermo, the one 
large city in Sicily which, preserved from major earthquakes 
and eruptions, has retained its old houses and narrow streets. 
The basic living unit for the family is not a house but a single 
room, in which as many as ten people eat and sleep, work 
and play. The door may consist simply of a large piece of 
wood propped against the entrance to block out light and occa- 
sional wind and rain. Because of the temperate climate the 
poor suffer little from cold, and as noise and crowds please 
the Sicilians in proportion as they approach the maximum, 
these rooms are less insupportable than they at first appear. 
Besides, when actual hunger is an ever-present menace, the 
size of living-quarters assumes less urgent importance. Food 
of low nutritional value keeps body and soul together, but 
sometimes in a tenuous and almost animal condition. Here 
an old man selling newspapers is being brought a bowl of 
coarse pasta mixed with oil, which he munches like a soldier 
at his post greedily, for it is his only meal of the day; there 


a child in arms is sucking a crust of bread to appease a hunger 
which milk alone ought to satisfy, were it less expensive. 
Sicily, in so many ways reflecting the social pattern of conti- 
nental Europe a hundred or more years ago, is still a country 
of great poverty, and in Palermo, where the Arab spirit is 
so evident, the hopeless, crushing condition of the poor sug- 
gests the cities of North Africa. 

Because every activity, whether work, commerce, conver- 
sation or play, takes place in the narrow, closely packed 
streets, jammed with people, young and old, one has the 
impression of being present at a three-ring circus in which all 
the performers are going through their act at the same time. 
If comedy consists in the solemn juxtaposition of incongruous 
elements, then Palermo can claim to be the centre of comedy 
at its most ludicrous. The little boy who with one hand 
pushes a handcart with a newly painted coffin on it, and with 
the other holds a huge strawberry ice-cream cone; the vendor 
of carnations and roses in heated conversation with the fish- 
monger; the carter whose mule decides to sit down in the 
main street, holding up all the traffic and firmly refusing to 
budge; the policeman who for all his waving and semaphore 
makes the confusion in the narrow streets worse confounded; 
the man who sells brightly coloured balloons outside the most 
expensive restaurant in the city; the fortune-teller with her 
parrot in front of the street-corner icon: all partake a little 
of light-hearted lunacy. 

In the last analysis, the distinctive characteristic of Palermo 
is something more than the sum of its incongruities, its 
crowds, its rhythm, its bazaars and that peculiar mentality 
which is the result of cross-fertilisation over a period of two 
millennia. This essential aspect of the city can best be de- 
scribed as an overflowing and intermingling of personalities. 
Passers-by in the street, instead of walking in a calm, anony- 
mous manner, parade their personality and even their occupa- 
tion. Everyone emits as it were a positive charge of electricity, 
like so many children reciting their names and vaunting their 
achievements in the playground. They have something of 


the primary colours they love so much; their whole essence 
is at once revealed in uncompromising fashion. Just as 
coffins are made in full view of the teeming crowds, so the 
Palermitan, by his mourning band, by eating in the street, 
by open marks of affection such as embracing and linking 
arms, and above all by his frank, public avowal of all that a 
northerner would regard as personal and even secret, dis- 
plays all his wares to the world. 

His love of talk of all kinds, conversation, sermons, 
speeches commercial, social and dramatic (Pirandello the 
Sicilian is one of the few modern dramatists worthy to rank 
with Synge and Yeats), is a characteristic the Palermitan 
indeed every Sicilian shares with the Irish. It is by no 
means the only one: deep religious feeling, a passion for 
politics, a distrust of books and dislike of reading are features 
common to both peoples. Like the Irish, the Sicilians also 
show a resignation to suffering which has been bred in 
their bones over centuries and amounts almost to fatalism. 
Worship, too, in the southern no less than in the northern 
island, has become a function of daily life, so that the crowd 
which interrupts a sermon to contest or approve, and the 
workman who rides a bicycle down the cathedral nave, far 
from showing disrespect, are on the contrary displaying 
affection by their familiarity. 

The faces in the streets of Palermo are of a diversity to be 
found elsewhere only in great international ports. Here, at 
the heart of the island, blood from Greece, Phoenicia and 
Rome; from Africa, Scandinavia and Germany; from Anjou, 
Aragon and Catalonia, meets and intermingles with feverish 
activity. All the races of the world seem to be conducting 
and attending a Babel-like bazaar under the torrid sun, 
where the wares, holy pictures set above nespole, tunny fish 
juxtaposed with candies, seem purposely arranged to mirror 
the city's essential incongruity, a strident polyphony of 
colours, sounds and gestures which is appropriately caught 
up on a larger scale and matched by the diversity of architec- 
ture in the city itself. 


A final element in the already confused background of 
Moorish houses, Spanish palaces, Norman and baroque 
churches, is the modern architecture which is the measure of 
material progress during the last hundred years. In the nine- 
teenth century a wave of anti-clericalism together with the 
political union of Sicily and Italy were reflected in secular 
buildings which relied largely on the established or outmoded 
forms of the mainland, a tendency which in modern times 
has been successfully reversed to allow Sicilian architects and 
craftsmen to evolve an original style. 

The northern part of Palermo was developed in a series 
of broad streets and blocks of apartments of neutral appear- 
ance, such as can be seen in any continental city of Europe. 
These are essentially middle-class buildings, stolid, comfor- 
table and undistinguished. Not a lira has been spent on 
decorations unless either useful or ostentatious. In Palermo 
as all over Europe this rise of the commercial middle-class 
was characterised also by a great interest in drama, or more 
exactly melodrama, and two theatres were built in the single 
year 1875. Both are enormous, pretentious, stolid and with- 
out a trace of originality, modelled patiently on the buildings 
of Rome's greatness, thereby betraying the fact that at that 
time Italy was very far from being great had, in truth, only 
recently come into existence as a national state. The Poli- 
teama Garibaldi, with hemispherical faf ade incorporating 
a triumphal arch, is a reproduction of the Pompeian style: 
its painted glass, its trite murals, its altogether synthetic 
appearance mark it out as pastiche and a failure in this city 
of successful buildings. Similarly, the Teatro Massimo, one of 
the largest theatres in the world (how often that epithet has 
an ominous ring), dismally fails because it is modelled on the 
outworn style of Augustan buildings. Steps lead up to the 
Corinthian colonnade, behind which rises a Roman dome, 
while at a higher level, and jarring outrageously with the 
round lines of the cupola, towers a hideous square mass "with 
sloping roof. The colonnade does not extend the whole 
length of the facade, with the result that vast undecorated 


windows of plain glass gape blankly at either side, disinteg- 
rating any lines the theatre might otherwise have possessed. 
The colour, a dark greenish-grey worthy of a gnome, lehds 
the building an air of solemn, brooding pretentiousness. This 
in fact was evidently the desired effect, as is witnessed by the 
inscription over the colonnade: " L'arte rinnova i popoli e ne 
rivella la vita. Vano delle scene il diletto ove non mira a 
preparar Tavvenire." Progressive idealism arm in arm with 
materialism, the figure of social justice in bourgeois trap- 
pings! Art must be linked to social progress: art must be 
strictly utilitarian. The stolid citizens of Palermo would give 
their city a huge theatre, no, two huge theatres, not for any 
frivolous purpose but to emancipate and educate the people. 
Nineteenth-century idealists, they can see the answer of this 
century in the placards posted round the theatre, announcing 
Aida and the operas of Rossini. In any case it is not the 
realist art of nineteenth-century melodrama that will renew 
the spirit of the audience, and the people know too much of 
life already from the narrow, sordid streets to wish to pay for 
the privilege of knowing more. 

If the nineteenth century, partly because of its momentous 
social and political changes, partly because of its temporary 
shift of values, failed to erect great buildings in Palermo, the 
twentieth century has already succeeded. Today Italy leads 
Europe in the field of architecture, and the new processes and 
techniques of engineering provide her designers with an op- 
portunity as momentous as that which followed the discovery 
of the dome. It is a pity that the large, modern public build- 
ings of Palermo were commissioned by the Fascists, for they 
betray, in consequence, a certain defiant assertiveness : they 
seem to proclaim in a voice just a shade too loud: "Look, 
here are the noble, useful buildings, symbols of Italy's great- 
ness, which can be achieved under the enlightened dictator- 
ship of one man." But behind the facade the cracks of 
shoddy workmanship and cheap materials are all too glar- 
ingly apparent. Previous civilisations in the island have 
shown that nobility and grandeur in architecture are the 


products not of government directives but of discipline, 
patient craftsmanship and above all a fine style which is also 
living the expression of the beliefs of a distinguished mind 
reflecting the contemporary spirit. 

The two most important public buildings erected by the 
Fascists are the post office and the Palazzo del Prowedi- 
torato. The former, built in 1933 to designs of Angiolo 
Mazzoni, is a rectilinear building entirely of ferro-concrete. 
The facade is dominated by ten vast columns, reaching 
almost the whole height of the building, without fluting 
and flush with the walls, topped by square abacuses too small 
for their purpose. At the sides of the architrave two angels, 
or more likely symbolic figures of vague purpose, provide the 
sole decoration. Planking the columns on each side are 
twelve massive windows, while behind the colonnade low 
rounded arches give access to the public rooms, the chief of 
which has a low roof supported on groined vaulting and is 
dominated by three large semi-circular windows. These 
rooms, like the building itself, are simple and functional, yet 
none is sufficiently distinguished in line to succeed as it 
stands, without decoration. On the contrary, both columns 
and windows are unnecessarily large almost to the point of 
vulgarity, and the vast colonnade in point of fact supports 
nothing at all. Fittingly enough, beside this building stands 
the ruined symbol of Fascism, triple axes in brown marble, 
the blades broken off and only the mutilated handles stand- 

The second Fascist work, again a Government office build- 
ing designed to throw credit on the regime, is the Palazzo 
del Proweditorato, the project of Giuseppe Capito. It takes 
the form of a rectangle on three sides, the faf ade being 
formed across the fourth side by three straight marble pieces 
supporting a cross-piece of similar material with an inscrip- 
tion. This front is totally rhetorical: an unintegrated attempt 
at grandeur, an unmasked pretence. At the sides are the 
usual Symbolic figures, even less significant and attractive 
than usual: one woman holds a sword as though it were a 


mirror in her boudoir, another, ^dth wings, holds out the 
olive branch of peace. These linked symbols of war (or 
merely strength) and peace are a feature of Fascist buildings. 
The inscription runs: "Tempio Munito Fortezza Mistica." 
One can often learn a great deal from inscriptions on or in 
buildings about the spirit of the age in which they were built, 
for the phrases are concise telegraphic messages sent from 
the past to future generations. This one is surely a classic of 
empty abstraction, of a pseudo-ideology. One remembers the 
inscription above the high altar in the Cappella Palatina, call- 
ing the sinner to repentance and prayer in face of the suffer- 
ings of Christ, a message valid for all eternity. However, the 
attempt to found a mystical secularism, alien to the Sicilian 
people, was doomed from the first to failure, and these 
Fascist buildings constructed without love or faith will doubt- 
less tumble long before the Norman churches. 

One of the best examples of contemporary architecture in 
Palermo is the Ristorante San Pietro, built in 1950-1 to 
designs by a young architect of Spanish descent, Giorgio 
Fernandez. It takes the form of two long, rectangular rooms 
joined in the centre to make the letter H. These rooms, 
which are below street level, have frosted windows stretching 
the whole length of one of the shorter walls, additional light- 
ing being provided by concealed fluorescent bulbs at the 
angle of walls and ceiling. They are divided down the centre 
by square pillars and reached by a flight of steps suspended 
on cords from two piers. The two rooms are decorated each 
in a distinctive way, one with purely abstract and surrealist 
designs, the other more realistically. The abstract designs 
take the form of painted geometrical squares and triangles; 
the surrealist murals derive from Picasso's middle period, 
and in the recesses let into the long wall are designs in cord 
and metal. The ceiling, too, is recessed to form a non- 
figurative pattern in which lighting is concealed. 

The other room has niches along the most extensive wall 
in which are set, to form bas-reliefs lighted from within, 
objects such as a mandoline or a tree or glass pots arranged 


on an inclined plane, while the pillars are decorated with 
geometrical patterns. The colour scheme throughout is 
pastel: tables and chairs are functional, a combination of 
light metal, marble, and wood. The harmony and vitality 
of the decor, the sense of space and light elicited from base- 
ment rooms, and above all the employment of modern 
materials and methods in an original manner in order to sug- 
gest new forms of beauty such qualities show that the accom- 
plished architects of Sicily do not all belong to the past. 

These simple, bare, rectilinear rooms, with no decoration 
but the frescoes and bas-reliefs, austere, abrupt, and uncom- 
promisingly essential, by accident or design recall some of the 
most ancient constructions of Sicily. There exist, on the 
other side of the island, at Pantalica, caves fashioned three 
thousand years earlier than these rooms, yet which might 
have been their matrix. Modern architecture, going back 
behind the Norman and baroque gardens, has discovered 
once more the underlying rock in shadow and sunlight, and 
if this clue is followed back to its source, at Pantalica perhaps 
Sicilian history can be brought full circle. 



THE starting-point for the journey to Pantalica is the small 
town of Sortino, standing high on the Iblean Mountains, not 
far from Syracuse, an agricultural centre going back to Greek 
times. The journey to the prehistoric caves possesses an un- 
common significance for the inhabitants: they see themselves 
as the sentinels of the past, and their town as the threshold of 
time, the dark cave by which travellers to that other world, 
older than theirs by three millennia, must pass. They have 
evolved a ritual according to which each detail of the depar- 
ture is ordered. When a traveller tells the group of men who 
soon collect round him that he wishes to make the journey, 
they answer that they will attend to all arrangements, and 
within a few moments a large crowd forms, offering advice 
and pressing him to drink with them. In a quarter of an 
hour, it is promised, a horse will be saddled and bridled 
ready for departure. But a quarter of an hour, or any other 
period, is in Sicily not a precise definition of time but an 
evocative phrase suggesting that if one continues to wait 
patiently the expected will finally arrive. In this case, the 
phrase is used purposely and the wait prolonged, for these 
people of Sortino are well trained in their rites and know 
how anxiously the traveller attends, fearing now that there is 
no suitable mount to be had, now that the guide is ill or 
absent at wedding or funeral. 

At last, when further waiting seems pointless, the party 
arrives. The guide himself is a young man too young, it 
seems, to know the secrets of Pantalica with laughing 
mouth and serious eyes, a man conscious of his role as medi- 
ator between past and present time; while the beasts are led 



by an old, stoop-shouldered groom and a man with similar 
features who might be his son, joined in unceasing laughter. 
The horses are saddled simply with sheepskin attached by 
cords, bridled with long double reins and wearing blinkers 
and bells. Mounting, we take the road leading out of the 
town to the south. Already all the women and children of 
these houses on the outskirts are gathered to watch, cheer- 
ing and laughing and shouting advice, while some of the 
older children run out to pull the tails of the good-natured 
horses, urging them on more quickly. The road comes to 
an end with the last house; henceforward it winds down the 
slope in hairpin bends or tumbles headlong in a series of ill- 
defined stairs, irregular as though they marked the steps of 
someone who had careered down the incline at full speed, 
its surface indistinguishable from the rocky bed of a torrente. 
Nothing serves to set off the path from the surrounding rocks 
but an occasional heap of loose pebbles. More often than not 
the way lies up and down the smooth stone of the mountain- 
side, and sometimes even over a rabbit-warren of eroded 
rock. Sortino lies at a height of over a thousand feet, and the 
road to the south precipitates itself almost half that distance 
down an all-but-sheer slope to the gorge below. Yet the 
beasts never once miss their footing, moving forward like the 
central section of a river which is never caught or thrown by 
the latent boulders at the edge. Indeed, the rider's impres- 
sion is of being a river god, tumbling down in a cascade from 
infinity to nought within a few minutes, like the Sicilian 
torrents in October after the heavy rains. 

At first the scenery, quite open to the sun, is characteristic 
of mid-spring, almond-trees already advanced in leaf and 
wild flowers in full bloom. To descend the gorge is to turn 
back two months in time. The almonds at this lower, more 
shaded level are still in blossom and many of the flowers still 
in bud. In the shelter of the chasm, in small terraces cut into 
the mountain-side, oranges hang on diminutive trees, like 
coloured balls juggled by a circus dwarf. In and out of the 
groves, goldfinches are looping in love-play, seen only for a 


fleeting moment, gone in a flash of wings. The bird which 
in northern countries astonishes with its brilliant red-and- 
yellow markings, appearing almost to mock the pastel 
flowers and delicate greens, is here perfectly in place: its 
colours lie on either side of the myriad little suns, and the 
black marking which divides them, like the pattern on 
Mycenean pottery, answers to the dark shadows lying at the 
heart of the orange-trees' leaves. Here, in this quarry of 
fruit, in the garden at the edge of a gorge, the firebird seems 
rightfully to take its origin, embodying the colours of the 
wild flowers which bloom indiscriminately, here in the soil, 
there in the bare rock. 

Like drops from the fountains of the orange-trees, mari- 
golds lie scattered on the grass; campions carry the colour 
in one direction, yellow vetches and dandelions in another. 
Speedwell and bugloss add blue, wild snapdragon a hint of 
gold. Mallows and daisies, thyme and asphodel, crimson 
sainfoin and wild stock flourish as profusely as though they 
have been planted in a well-tended garden, their scent justi- 
fying the Greek saying that in Sicily hunting dogs lose the 
trail when the spring flowers are in bloom. Yet this abun- 
dance of fruit and flower is growing not in deep, rich, well- 
watered soil but out of the rock, almost spontaneously. 

Through this natural garden the path descends, crosses the 
narrow bridge which spans the gorge some hundred feet 
above the river and starts the long, difficult ascent of the 
opposite side. The horses prove no less agile at climbing 
than at descending, and though panting for breath they do 
not pause to rest indeed, there is not a single ledge which 
could serve as a momentary stage. The layers of vegetation 
change like the levels of a mine: in the heart of the gorge 
pure gold of oranges; above this a less rich deposit of unripe 
fruit and many-coloured flowers, surmounted in turn by 
rock, divided into narrow terraces and already abundant 
with young corn. Then the flat crest of the hill gives way 
to another gorge, similar to the first* but with a dry river-bed 
at the bottom, and cultivated all the way down with corn, 


in little terraces and patches of field no larger sometimes than 
an outspread sheet. 

The earth is worked with a hoe, and the harvest in June 
reaped with a sickle, threshed by hand and carried on mule- 
back to Sortino to be sold. There are no cottages on the land 
itself; in the morning labourers come out from the town on 
foot or mule, taking as long as an hour or even, in some parts 
of Sicily, two or three hours to reach the fields, and at twi- 
light returning to their homes. The result is that the soil is 
poorly worked both because of the time and labour spent in 
travelling and because the labourer lacks that physical and 
moral attachment to the land which he feels when his home 
stands amid the crops. Since the land is feverishly fertile, this 
inadequacy is not disastrous. Methods which elsewhere in 
Europe would mean ruin to the fanner here produce good 
yields: so that the Romans said Ceres gave Sicily the power 
of producing corn without human labour. But for the agri- 
cultural labourer the system means a servile and crushing 
life. His mid-day meal is no more than a plate of pasta which 
gives neither nourishment nor stimulus, and when he returns 
home after dark he eats no better. His lot is the direct result 
of those historical conditions which made Sicily an island of 
large towns. Even before the first colonists arrived, the Sicels 
were settled in large centres as the surest means of protection, 
a procedure which the Greeks, Normans, and Swabians con- 
tinued, for their rule too was continually challenged. The 
custom endures, and the Sicilian peasant is now so used to 
it that he would probably oppose bitterly any change which 
deprived him of civic communal life. 

The path now arrives at a third gorge, that of the River 
Calcinara, a tributary of the Anapos, which marks the site 
of Pantalica. Approached from the north the prehistoric city 
rises up on the other side of the gorge, stretching along a 
terrace, guarded on the south side by the Anapos and on the 
northern and eastern aspects by the Calcinara. The first im- 
pression is of a multitude of square openings in the rock, 
row upon row, spaced irregularly, in several tiers, all along 


the length of the terrace. Because they are unique they at 
once bring to mind a flood of wildly divergent similes. They 
are like the caves of wild animals, and also like the most 
modern ferro-concrete buildings; they are eyries and hives 
belonging to colossal insects, windows and watching eyes. 
Their menacing effect is due not solely to the fact that they 
resemble concrete fortifications but also to their furtiveness 
they are hidden and give nothing of themselves away. 
They terrify also by force of numbers : they are not confined 
merely to one section of the terrace but continue along the 
line of the mountain until they vanish out of sight on 
either side. Their efficient, straight-edged aspect, so unex- 
pected in the midst of wild and remote surroundings where 
not even the precipices fall in vertical lines, enhances this 
effect. There is nothing whatever to detract from the primeval 
appearance of the place: everything remains now as it was 
when the early inhabitants were constructing their caves, or 
rather their city, since these caves constitute an entire met- 
ropolis in the form of a fortress. For, when the first over- 
whelming impression has passed and the traveller attempts 
to analyse the place, its impregnable position seems the most 
distinctive feature. On both sides this gorge rises almost ver- 
tically to a far greater height than in the previous two, while 
the Anapos to the south flows through a similar chasm. Only 
a narrow, easily defensible strip of land connects the terrace 
with high ground to the west. 

At closer range it becomes clear from their inaccessible and 
cramped nature that the rows of square apertures which at 
first seem to constitute the ancient city are not all former 
habitations of the living: only a few of the larger openings 
where the terrace comes to a point at the spur of the moun- 
tain can have served as homes. The other smaller squares, 
which extend irregularly along the sheer cliff-face are noth- 
ing else than tombs, a multitude of sepulchres hewn out of 
the rock, a necropolis of colossal proportions. This fact once 
apparent, the whole place takes on an even more sinister 
aspect. The magnificent setting between sheer mountains, 


looking over valley upon valley of green cultivated ground 
to glimpse the sea beyond, the undercurrent of music sent up 
by the river and augmented by deep grottoes, the scent of 
innumerable wild flowers all these seemed fitting surround- 
ings for an ancient city that could be imagined as still living. 
But now, as the framework to a vast and ostentatious ceme- 
tery, to a city doubly dead, to row upon row of gaping tombs, 
these beautiful properties seem infected and limned with 
terror. Loveliness degenerates to exoticism; the valley be- 
comes so many traps leading to death; the river's music a 
treacherous siren-song inviting the newcomer to throw him- 
self down into the cool waters which will bring oblivion; the 
multi-coloured wild flowers so many poisonous plants; the 
square tombs expectant, waiting to close in on their prey. 
The place is nothing less than a chasm of death, the final 
stage, as the myriad sepulchres bear witness, on the route of 
countless unsuspecting travellers. 

The tombs themselves, built by Sicels of the second mil- 
lennium, are crude constructions. In the majority of cases an 
opening three feet square has been cut two feet deep into the 
rock; its width at this point narrows to about eighteen inches, 
and continues for another six inches into the mountain face; 
then it opens out into the tomb proper, some six feet long 
and three feet wide. The tombs have been sited in irregular 
rows, wherever the cliff face falls sheer, and in many cases 
must have been inaccessible without the use of ladders. On 
either side of the city itself, and on the slope directly opposite 
it, these apertures crowd everywhere. Though open and 
gaping now like niches in the catacombs, they were once 
closed, not with a terracotta plaque and mortar, but with a 
single piece of stone. 

This city of tombs provides a revelation of the island as it 
is in its raw, natural state, as it was in the dark age between 
the founding of the Cretan and the Greek colonies. There is 
no artistic richness, not even a building above ground to prove 
that man has raised himself from the earth, only the stark, 
square openings dedicated to death, cut out of the brute cliff- 


face. Here is Sicily of the stone age, intent on nothing higher 
than the taking of food and the burial of its dead. The 
pageant of nation after nation which was later to form a con- 
tinual progress, the gorgeous trappings, the poetry and the 
palaces have not yet arrived: the stage is bare and empty. 

Empty, that is, of civilisation, of man-made beauty, for all 
around, in the oranges and flowers and almond-trees, in the 
majestic lines of the chasm whose heights seem to dam and 
canalise the sky until it forms the torrent of water hundreds 
of feet below, throbs a natural, living beauty to be found in 
few other places of the world. If Pantalica, and Sicily at 
large, can boast no indigenous culture, if the island merely 
provides a theatre for other performers, something in the 
structure of that theatre, its own natural magnificence has 
called forth absolute perfection time after time, whatever the 
particular representation might be. The island possesses an 
intrinsic, though passive, loveliness which elicits artistic per- 
fection no less surely than the golden sun now opens the 
wild flowers and turns the oranges into microcosms of itself. 

Artists of all ages have found stimulus in Sicily, have 
matched its natural exuberance with works no less rich in 
number and design, have drawn inspiration from its in- 
numerable wild flowers. Like the bees drifting over the hills 
to steal nectar from the canyon, they have come from afar to 
turn a natural and variegated beauty into the symmetrical 
pattern of art, and the honeycomb they formed was a direct 
result of a fertilising movement among opulent natural sur- 
roundings. Pantalica, by revealing both the open poverty 
and hidden wealth of the island, casts this light on Daedalus's 
offering: the honeycomb in gold which he presented to 
Aphrodite was the work of an alien who drew forth and 
stored in an enduring form the hidden nectar of Sicily: an 
initial act of artistry which at the same time fertilised suc- 
ceeding civilisations. 

Pantalica, therefore, city of crude, brute, indigenous bar- 
barism, points the solution to part of the original legend. 
Sicily of herself has been unable to build or develop any of 


the arts, and had Daedalus never set foot in the island, she 
might well have remained another Corsica or Sardinia, a 
country of merely natural beauty, without any corresponding 
artistic achievement. The arts were brought by Daedalus and 
his followers, the peoples who have successively invaded 

The bees which make the far-famed honey of Hybla are 
drifting along the streaming sunlight, drawn to each flower 
either by its colour or scent, fulfilling an end greater than 
their own storing against famine. Most, when they are 
loaded with pollen, make off over the hills, but some, a tribu- 
tary stream, turn away to one of the larger tombs in the rock 
face, as though, like the primitive Greek priestesses named 
Bees, to lay an offering before the dead. 

To cross the cave-opening is to undergo burial and then, 
after a few moments, to revive in Hades, in a shadowy world 
of grey stone, of line without colour, of shape without form, 
where the flight of bees resounds like surf echoing through 
a coastal cave. 

They are all purpose, these insects, and since this other 
world holds no pollen, presumably they use the cave as a 
hive. Yet there is no trace of honey either on walls or ceil- 
ing to explain the swarming bees,. Although they enter con- 
tinually, their numbers do not seem to increase, as though 
they take flight into the tomb only to die. But the true ex- 
planation soon appears: they are making their way into the 
far wall, through a narrow cleft at one corner. A ray of sun- 
light follows them in, illuminating the interior, which re- 
veals itself as a deep and rough-hewn natural sanctuary, half 
the size of the cave which forms its antechamber. At the 
remote end hangs the object of the bees' resonant flight, the 
central figure of the chasm, clearly visible yet by reason of 
the narrowness of the cleft inaccessible as a kestrel's nest 
perched on the topmost branch of a Scotch pine, a wild 
honeycomb, glinting gold. 

The moment of discovery strikes like a revelation and with 
all the force of surprise, and the gleaming treasure holds the 


eye no less surely than it draws the stream of bees. The pat- 
tern of cells, whipped like a whirlwind, convoluted as a sea- 
shell,, glints from myriad facets, as sunlight finds in the 
alternating rows of liquid and solid its own self distilled and 
stored. One sun meets a hundred thousand suns in a torrent 
of light, until the honeycomb takes on the character of a 
golden prism. As a rainbow leaps astride the clouds of spray 
on a waterfall like some rare polychrome fish, so now not in 
any vision but in actual fact a golden spectrum is formed 
across the sun-struck honeycomb, holding in itself more than 
the whirled wax and nectar. Its colours, ranging through all 
the ranks of sunlight, are first to strike the eye: a galaxy of 
golds which not merely evoke but seem to hold in themselves 
(for all is real, in this wide spectrum, as though the buildings 
had been transported and reduced to miniature) the stone of 
the temples at Acragas and the baroque churches at Noto. 
As though with the bees there now come rushing back into 
the sunlight a crowd of other images which share this golden 
colour :the mosaics at Cefalu, at Monreale and in the jewel 
casket of the Cappella Palatina; the coins of Syracuse and 
gilded baroque interiors all across the island. 

Now another feature of the honeycomb imposes itself, 
eclipsing even the colours: its intricate pattern, fashioned 
with all the skill and symmetry of a work of art. The coiled 
bas-relief, under the influence of sunlight, takes shape as the 
carved figures on peasant carts, as marionettes of beaten metal 
and as arabesque cakes. Lying within it, too, as the waves' 
beat lies in a shell, are the archaic metopes of Selinus and 
the statue of Aphrodite which takes a new form at Serpotta's 
hands; here is the honeycomb on Pindar's lips; and here 
too is S. Rosalia's golden cloak, the religious gift of an alien 
king. All assemble and find a unity, until it becomes ap- 
parent that the golden object at the far end of the cave is 
more than a mere honeycomb: it is the very essence of 
Sicilian art, a form which has been realised, now as a golden 
coin, now as a Pindaric ode, now as Norman mosaics, diverse 
beauties all stamped with one implicit yet distinctive pattern. 


The golden honyecomb is nothing less than the archetype of 
all Sicilian art. 

Pantalica has yielded up one secret, but there are others still 
to be discovered. As the bees drift in and circle round the 
gleaming prism, they seem to prove it a natural honeycomb, 
of their own fabrication. Yet does that, after all, necessarily 
follow? Since the treasure lies inaccessible for all time within 
the rock, touch can never prove the statement true or false. 
To claim, therefore, that it is not a natural object but a work 
of metal, the original offering which Daedalus made to 
Aphrodite of Erice, is not altogether fanciful, and can never, 
at least, be proved absurd. One point lends great support to 
the claim. Diodorus says that the original object in gold 
was indistinguishable from the work fashioned by bees, and 
if indistinguishable, then able to confound even the insects 

The tradition of Sicilian art suggests the real existence of 
a paradigm such as Diodorus describes, and here, deep in 
the chasm, lies just such an object. To deny the honeycomb 
its true title as Daedalus's work simply because it is inacces- 
sible would be the height of contrariness: rather, its inviola- 
bility seems in keeping with its holy nature. It would follow 
therefore that someone of the old religion centuries ago re- 
moved Daedalus's masterpiece from Erice to this cave, where 
it has endured as a living archetype. This is Pantalica' s 
second, darker secret. * 

For such a claim the evidence is imaginative rather than 
logical, yet to see the gleaming, convoluted spiral is to know 
beyond doubt that the quest has ended. The absent, on the 
other hand, have a right to deny so improbable a discovery, 
but such a denial makes no difference to the conclusions 
which follow from Pantalica. Even supposing the cave holds 
nothing more than the work of bees, supposing Sicily no 
longer holds a honeycomb fashioned in gold, the accumula- 
tion of evidence none the less confirms Diodorus's story. In- 
stead of being taken literally, it will have to be construed, 
after the fashion of many legends, as a symbolic statement of 


certain factors in the centuries known to the historian, fac- 
tors which have proved constant in the Sicilian scene and per- 
sisted until the present day. 

Daedalus, in that case, must be considered the prototype of 
the foreign invader who atones for his conquest by glorify- 
ing the island with works of art. The offering of his master- 
piece to Aphrodite is an expression of the religious nature of 
those works, its unique form represents the introduction of 
new modes, and its consummate workmanship typifies the 
perfection of foreign forms on Sicilian soil, itself rich in 
natural beauty but altogether lacking an indigenous artistic 
tradition. That it was made from gold foreshadows a Sicilian 
predilection for that colour and metal, while the fact that it 
was indistinguishable from the work of bees is to be taken 
as an indication of that harmony between works of art and 
their natural surroundings which characterises all Sicilian 
building. In short, the qualities of this original work of art, 
its colour and intricacy and sanctity, have become the Sicilian 

Furthermore, just as honey is the substance to which the 
bees devote their life, their sole monument, so it may be said 
that the Sicilians have displayed their qualities more excel- 
lently in their works of art than in any other sphere of 
activity. They remain, even the earliest, sometimes as perfect 
as when they were first fashioned, objects of beauty over 
which the eye can rove, fertilising the imagination, drawing 
images to be distilled as words and lines until another form 
of art is thereby composed. 

The ritual of offering honey to Christian neophytes, popu- 
lar belief regarding bees and the presentation of honey to 
the newly married these and other details suggest that 
Sicily received from Crete a cult in which bees and honey 
played a significant part, at a date which corresponds with 
the Cretan sherds on Lipari. Such evidence confirms 
Diodorus's story. Daedalus must surely have lived, a man of 
flesh and blood and a supreme artist who set his mark on a 
country's tradition. But he is equally important as a proto- 


type, a theme underlying all Sicilian history, a figure who is 
reborn now as a Greek colonist, now as Count Roger, now as 
a Spanish baroque architect. He is a man and more than a 
man, just as his masterpiece is both a honeycomb and the 
fountainhead of such rich and continuous beauty as can be 
found nowhere else in the world. 

The chasm has revealed its seam of gold and thereby 
brought an end to the quest. Outside, the square openings of 
the necropolis stare as before, but no longer inscrutably, and 
another ancient music joins the humming of the bees. 
Devoid of the cover which an English spinney provides, the 
nightingale has begun to sing. Among the mottled moun- 
tains, against a bare, uncultivated background the notes form 
themselves into a spring of mountain water, issuing directly 
from the rock and flowing down to irrigate the valley 
parched with silence. In the soft surroundings of an English 
spring, the nightingale crowns the calls of a score of other 
song-birds, each one of which adequately celebrates the scene 
and season, but here, where birds are few, the nightingale is 
not a luxury but a necessity: the only bird whose music can 
match the profusion and abandon of flowers and fruit, of 
light and colour. Just as the goldfinch, by its plumage, proves 
its birth from some remote and legendary orange-grove of 
Sicily, so the nightingale, by that melody which surges up 
from earth to heaven in a string of crescendos on a single 
note, enunciates now and for all time the marriage between 
the island and the sun, a marriage symbolised in sweet, gol- 
den honey. Without the nightingale, the country would 
produce its beauty in vain; like the courts of Acragas and 
Syracuse without a Pindar to define and immortalise their 
achievements, the recklessly daring leap of corn and grass 
and clover; the old troupers, almond and olive, bowed down 
by their weight of fruit; the zany flowers, dressed in harle- 
quin costume; the rocks, masters of magic, which produce a 
whole succession of brightly coloured festoons out of them- 
selves all these would perform to an unapplauding audi- 
ence; their marvels would pass unrecorded; their rise and fall 


would pass unshared as a death without tears. But the 
nightingale is present and does not fail: in a continuous 
rhapsody it glorifies the island, gathering up all its aspects 
into a single essential melody, which in its abandon and 
abundance could be the spirit of Daedalus, responding to 
the delights of a sunlit Eden with his own form of beauty. 
The strong surge upwards does justice even to the mountains, 
the cascade of descending notes mirrors the petals of blossom 
as they fall from the almond-trees, and since of all birds it 
was the best loved of the Greeks it recalls those who brought 
the fairest gifts to Sicily and the civilisation which beneath 
all others has endured. 


Aboukir, 106 

Aci Castello, 65, 93 

Acireale, 69-75, 201 

Acradina, 107, 130 

Acragas see Agrigento 

Actaeon, metope, 44 

Adam, 134, 173, 182 

Aeneas, 21, 125 

Aeolia, 95 

Aeolian Isles, 66, 93102, 199 

Aeolus, 95 

Aeschylus, 11314 

Africa, 17, 20-1, 42, 91, 141-2, 

160,211, 2423 
Agata, S., 236 
Agata, S., church, 210 
Agrigento, 23, 25-41, 96, 107, 109, 

127, 146-7, 233, 237, 257, 260 
Aida, 245 

Aidoneus, 26, 193-4 
Alfonso of Castile, 153 
Alfonso the Magnanimous, 160 
Al Mahdia, Emir of, 160 
Alpheus, 104-6 
Amari, 176 
Amazon, metope, 44 
America, 84 
Anapos, River, 2523 
Angevin rule, 148, 157-8, 235, 243 
Anna, Vito D*, 196 
Annunciata dei Catalani, church, 


Antonello da Messina, 78-9, 196-7 
Aphrodite, 12-14, 2 3> 2 9> 4 1 * 4 8 > 

122, 125-6, 145, 152, 222, 255, 

Aphrodite, statue, 122-7, 146-7, 


Apulia, 151 

Arab art, 149, 154, 168, 170, 244 

Arab rule, 38, 105, 134, 148-9, 

151-2, 161, 176, 216, 223, 239, 


Aragon, 243 

Archimedes, 107, 116, 11920 
Arete, 118 

Arethusa, 104-6, 122 
Aretusa, Fontana, 1046 
Artemis, 103-5 
Assinaros, River, 219 
Astarte, 14, 19-21 
Athena, 32, 122, 137-9, 173 
Athens, 12-13, 37-8, 96, 109, 117- 

18, 168, 174 
Athos, Mt., 177 
Attica, 13, 15 
Augustus, 128 
Australia, 84, 97 
Austria, 210 
Autun, 161 
Avola, 221, 224 

Bacchylides, 113 

Bayeux, 150, 156 

Belisarius, 138, 148 

Bellini, Piazza, 160, 206 

Bentinck, Lord William, 149 

Bonannus, 180 

Borghese, Cardinal Scipione, 202 

Bourbons, 94, 112, 168, 193, 210, 


Brazil, 232 
Brittany, 86, 190-1 
Brydone, 64, 106 
Byzantine art, 45, 144, 149, 164, 

172, 179, 181 



Byzantine Empire, 152, 175, 182 
Byzantine rule, 38, 138, 148, 150 

C, temple, 44-5 

Calabria, 52, 54 

Calascibetta, 192 

Calcinara, River, 252 

Callimachus, 192 

Camicus, 23, 32, 38 

Camposanto di Pisa, 198 

Capito, Giuseppe, 246 

Cappella Palatina, 143-4, 168-75, 

180-4, 229, 247, 257 
Caputo, Mt., 179 
Caravaggio, 115, 2023 
Carmine, church, 229 
Carnelivari, Matteo, 223 
Carthage, 28, 33, 38, 43, 92, 112, 

119, 148 
Casale, 140-7 
Cataldo, S., church, 164 
Catalonia, 243 
Catania, 62, 65, 128, 210, 223-4, 

226, 235-6 

Catania, Bishop of, 61 
Caterina, S., church, 206-7, 20 9 
Cefalu, 174-9, 213, 257 
Cellini, Benvenuto, 39 
Ceres, 181, 252 
Chansons de Geste, 88 
Charlemagne, 91, 159 
Charles III, 210, 235, 238 
Chiaramonte, 215 
Christ, 134, 162, 170-1, 175-7? 1 8 1, 

183, 186, 203, 229, 247 
Churriguera, 233 
Ciane, 193 
Cicero, 93, 128, 137 
Ciclopi, Scogli dei, 65 
Cimon, 121 
Cnossus, 15, 100 
Cocalus, 12, 23, 32, 38 
Collegio, church, 227 
Comatas, 40 

Conca d'Oro, 166, 179, 236 
Concordia, temple, 36 
Constance, Empress, 154, 158 
Constance of Aragon, 158 



Corinth, 103, 174 
Corsica, 60, 256 
Corvaia, Palazzo, 58 
Crete, 12-15, 2I > 47? 

Crocifisso, church, 229 
Crusaders, 87-90 
Cuba, 166-7 
Cyclopes, 65, 67, 92 

Daedalus, 11-16, 20-4, 28, 31-2, 
38, 41, 45-9, 67-8, 90-2, 101-2, 
112-13, 121-2, 125-6, 133, 139, 

T-, I42 ~1 
Damocles, 113 

Daniel, 131 

Danse Macabre, 198 

Dante, 179 

Delphi, 96 

Demeter, 25-6, 191-4 

Dzeslrae, 190, 198 

Diodorus, 11-15, 20 > 22 ~3> 4*> 45> 
47-8, 67-8, 91-3, 101, 122, 125, 
146-7, 201, 206, 234, 258-9 

Dion, 117-18 

Dionysius the Great, 107, 112-17, 

Dionysius II, 117-18 

Domenico, S., church, 227 

Domenico, S., oratory, 204 

Dyck, Van, 204 

E, temple, 44 

Ear of Dionysius, 11417 

Edrisi, 153 

Egadi, Isole, 20 

Ens, 104-6 

Empedocles, 64, 222 

England, 94, 149, 260 

Enna, 58, 148, 188-95, 211, 238 

Enna, cathedral, 190-1 

Ephesus, 33 

Erice, 12, 14, 16-25, 29, 48-9, 58, 
121, 123, 125-6, 147, 159, 172-3, 
187, 191, 206, 234, 238, 258 

Etna, Mt., 49-51, 53-4, 59-69, 

Etna, town, 39 


Euripides, 109, 123 
Evans, Sir Arthur, 13, 100 
Eve, 134, 182 
Exainetus, 37 

Expedition, Sicilian, 96, 109 
Eyck, Van, 78 

F,.temple, 44 

Fair Islanders, 86 

Fascists, 245-7 

Fernandez, Giorgio, 247-8 

Flanders, 196, 198 

Fontana, Carlo, 210 

Foresta, de, 64 

Forza d' Agr6, 52, 164 

Fouquet, 78 

France, 105, 148, 150, 153, 164 

Francesco d'Assisi, S., Catania, 


Francesco d'Assisi, S., Enna, 191 
Frederick II of Aragon, 192-3 
Frederick II, Stupor Mundi, 148, 

158, 168, 188, 192 
Fuga, Ferdinand, 156 
Fujiyama, 60 

G, temple, 43 

Gabriel, 172, 196-7 

Gagliardi, Rosario, 210-11, 213, 

218, 225-7, 229, 233 
Garibaldi, 94, 149, 235 
Gela, River, 140 
Gellias, 37 

Gelon, 33, 39, 107, 137-8 
Gemmellaro, Mt., 60 
Geraci, Marquese di, 72-4 
Germany, 150-1, 154, 168, 187 
Germelsnausen, 18 
Giorgio, S., church, 217-18 
Giorgio d'Antiochia, 160-1 
Giovanni, S., catacombs, 132-5 
Giovanni, S., church, 191 
Giovanni degli Eremiti, S., 

church, 162-5 
Giovanni dei Lebbrosi, S., church, 

Gladstone, 235 


Gorgon, bas-relief, 44, 89 
Goths, 138 

Gregory of the Turnips, S., 36 
Gregory the Great, S., 139 

Hamilcar, 33 

Hamilton, Lord, 106 

Hannibal, 43, 45 

Hannibal the Great, 43, 119 

Hauteville, 150-4, 177, 200 

Helen, 101, 213 

Henry II of England, 183 

Henry VI of Swabia, 154, 158, 187 

Hephaestus, 67 

Hera, 30 

Hera, metope, 44 

Hera, temple of Lacinian, 35, 38 

Heracles, 30, 44, 121 

Heracles, bas-relief, 44 

Hercules, mosaic, 143 

Herodotus, 12 

Hieron,39, 113" 

Hieron II, 118-19 


Hohenstaufen, 154, 181 

Homer, 41, 46, 65-7, 88, 95, 138, 

Hybla, 256, 258 
Hybla Heraea, 211 

Iblean Mts., 103-4, 138, 219 
Ibn Jubair, 19, 179 
Icarus, 12, 177 
India, 141 
Ionian Sea, 104 
Ireland, 243 
Isabella Farnese, 210 
Isaiah, 178 

Italy, 96, 99, 142, 146, 149-50, 
152-3, 244-5, 249 

Jason, 16 

Jerusalem, Entry into, 131, 134, 

171-2, 183 

Joan of England, 183 
Jonah, 131, 207 
Joseph, S., 172 
Jupiter, mosaic, 143 

Latomia del Cappuccini, 107-12 

Laurence, S., oratory, 202-4 

Lecce, 232 

Leo, Mt. S,, 60 

Leone, Mt., 60 

Lipari, 95-9, 102, 146-7, 259 

Lombards, Castle, 192 

Lot's wife, 182 

Lowe, E., 64 

Lucia, S., 236 

Madonie, 192 

Majone, 153 

Malta, 61, 202 

Malvasia, 96 

Marcellus, 120 

Marco, Capo S., 20 

Marco, S., church, 191 

Maria, Mt. S., 60 

Maria dell'Ammiraglio, S., 

church, .153, 160-2, 169, 172, 

176, 206-7 

Maria di Betlem, S., church, 218 
Maria di Gesu, S., catacombs, 


Marsala, 17 
Martorana see Maria delPAmmi- 


Martorana, Eloisa, 160 
Mary, Mother of God, 162, 172-3, 

177, 185, 196-7, 199, 203-4,241 
Marziano, S., crypt, 135 
Maupassant, 122 
Mazzaro, 53 
Mazzoni, Angiolo, 246 
Megara Iblea, 48 
Messina, city, 107, 164-5 
Messina, province, 93, 152 
Messina, straits, 51, 66, 96 
Milazzo, 93-4 
Miletus, 33 

Minoan art, 14, TOO, 146 
Minos, 12-13, 2 j IOI ~ 2 
Minotaur, 12 
Mirabella, Vincenzo, 115 
Modica, 149, 210, 215-22, 230, 

Moloch, 32 

INDEX 265 

Monreale, 134, 158-9, 178-88, 233, 


Monte San Giuliano, 18 
Mycenae, 28, 251 

Naples, 153 

Napoleon Bonaparte, 112, 149 

Naxos, 103 

Nelson, 105-6, 149 

Nero, 128-9 

Nimes, 129 

No plays, 182 

Norman art, 19-20, 148-88, 200-1, 

Norman rule, 18, 58, 107, 146, 

148-88, 216, 252 
Noto, 149, 210, 213, 223-34, 2 57 
Noto, cathedral, 226-7, 22 9 
Novell!, Pietro, 196, 204 

Odysseus, 15, 65-6, 93, 95 
Odyssey ', 65 
Olympus, Mt., 29 
Orlando, 88-90 
Orpheus, n, 142, 145 
Ortygia, 103-5, 1 3 
Ovid, 13 
Ovo, Castel dell', 153 

Palazzo Reale, 167-9 

Palermo, 107, 148-73, 182, 188, 

196, 198, 20010, 238-48 
Palermo, cathedral, 155-9, 180 
Palermo, post office, 246 
Palmer, Richard, 153 
Panaria, 94 
Pant^lica, 248-61 
Pantellaria, 20 
Papacy, 148, 150-1, 176, 183 
Paul'V, 202 

Paul, S., 36, 136, 171-2, 174, 181 
Pellegrino, Mt., 191, 235-8, 241 
Pergusa, Lake, 191, 193-4 
Persephone, 25-6, 121-2, 181, 


Perseus, bas-relief, 44 
Persia, 32-3 



Persia, King of, 114 

Peter of Aragon, 158, 160 

Peter, S., 36, 169, 171-2, 174, 181 

Petrarch, 198 

Phalaris, 313, 41, 112 

Philip V of Spain, 210 

Philoxenus, 113-14 

Phoenicia, 28, 60, 104, 243 

Piazza Armerina, 140 

Picasso, 247 

Pietro, Ristorante S., 2478 

Pietro, S., church, 2201 

Pindar, 25, 31, 39-41, 91, 113, 173, 

257, 260 
Pirandello, 243 
Plato, ii, 117-18, 139 
Politeama Garibaldi, 244 
Polyphemus, 65-8 
Pompeii, 128, 185, 244 
Poseidon, 30 
Posillipo, 153 

Provveditorato, Palazzo del, 2467 
Ptolemy, 153 

Ragusa, 149, 210-15, 2I %> 22 5> 22 ^ 
Ransom of Hector, The, 114 
Reali di Francia, 88 
Renaissance, 30, 99, 120, 200, 204, 


Rhea, 47 
Rhodes, 27, 32 
Rilke, 178 
Rimbaud, 207 
Robert Guiscard, 1512, 154 
Roger, Count, 18, 1512, 154, 192, 

Roger, King, 152-3, 155, 158, 160, 

162, 169, 1746 
Roman art, 100, 120, 127, 131, 

1436, 181, 200 
Roman rule, 96, 119-20, 125, 146, 

148-50, 221 
Rome, 94, 118-20, 125, 135, 146, 

202, 205, 210, 225, 243-4 
Romuald of Salerno, 153 
Roncesvalles, 88 
Rosalia, S., 157, 204, 235-8, 257 
Rossini, 245 

Sala di Re Ruggero, 168 

Salamis, 33 

Salvatore, S. 5 225, 227 

Saracens, 18, 87, 89-90, 207 

Sardinia, 210, 256 

Savoy, King of, 210 

Scandinavia, 150, 243 

Scarlatti, Alessandro, 205 

Sciacca, 20 

Sclafani, Palazzo, 199 

Sebastiano, S., church, 201 

Segesta, 43, 50 

Selinunte, see Selinus 

Selinus, 41-9, 146-7, 257 

Serpotta, Giacomo, 202-5, 257 

Serpotta, Procopio, 205 

Sicanians, 28, 191 

Sicels, 25, 28-9, 103, 216, 223, 252, 


Simonides, 113 
Sinibaldo, Duke, 235 
Sophocles, 114 
Sortino, 249-50, 252 
Spain, 60, 201, 225 
Spanish rule, 107, 146, 148-9, 157, 

160, 200-1, 210, 216, 244 
Spirito, S., church, 164 
Stromboli, 94-6 
Swabian rule, 146, 157, 252 
Syracuse, 33, 37, 39, 42, 58, 96, 

102-39, 153, 202, 219, 230, 236, 

249, 257, 260 

Syracuse, amphitheatre, 12730 
Syracuse, catacombs, 130-6 
Syracuse, cathedral, 137-9, 146, 

Syracuse, theatre, 51, 115^ 127, 

Syraka, 104 

Tacitus, 128 
Tancred, 150-1, 167 
Tancred, bastard, 154, 158 
Taormina, 48-59, 146 
Teatro Massimo, 244-5 
Temenite hill, 128 
Theocritus, 40, 107 



Theron, 33 

Thomas of Canterbury, S., 183 

Thucydides, 27 

Timoleon, 118 

Toledo, 192 

Torremuzza, Prince of, 36 

Trapani, 18-20 

Trionfo delta Morte, 198 

Triumph of Death, 197-9 

Trojan War, 13, 101 

Troy, 101, 213 

Tue-boeuf, Hugues, 151 

Ustica, 20 

Utrecht, treaty, 149, 210 

Utveggio, Albergo Castello, 236 

Vaccarini, 210 

Valerius and Adelphia, sarcopha- 
gus, 134 

Valerius Maximus, 128 . 
Vandals, 138, 147 
Venera, S., 221 
Venice, 183, 219 
Venus, 146 

Venus, well, 21-2 
Verga, 65 

Vergine, Monte, church, 229 
Verres, 93, 121, 137 
Vespers, Sicilian, 87, 160, 235 
Villa Cassia, catacombs, 131-2 
Villadorata, Palazzo, 22933 
Virgil, 21, 27, 95, 127, 153 
Vulcano, 94 

Walter of the Mill, 153, 156, 180 
Wignacourt, Alof de, 202 
William the Bad, 153, 158-9, 165 
William the Good, 153-4, 158-9, 
165-6, 179, 183, 185, 235 

Xerxes, 33 

Zeus, 47, 95, 119, 123, 193 

Zeus, altar, 119 

Zeus, metope, 44 

Zeus, temple, 30-5, 38, 43 

Zisa, 165-8, 229 

Zita, S., oratory, 204 

Zosimus, S., 137